The year is 1837. A newly crowned Queen Victoria, voiced by Imelda Staunton and animated in clay as a shrewish little turnip of a woman, decrees war on buccaneering. Well down her Most Wanted list is the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), an only middling terror of the trade routes who’s a perennial also-ran for Pirate of the Year. On the way to the Queen and Captain’s crossing swords, The Pirates! hits the usual kids’ pic stops—pop montage, theme-park-ride action, heartwarming affirmation of true friendship—but a script that consistently finds fresh outlets for its running gags makes for a sufficiently rollicking pleasure cruise from Britain’s Aardman Animations, with their first stop-motion feature since 2005’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Screenwriter Gideon Defoe adapts from his own series of comedy books for young people, and the humor ranges from obliviously brutal slapstick—anchor is never dropped without a casualty—to 19th-century name-dropping, with a cast that includes Charles Darwin (an anxious virgin whose Beagle voyage is strictly to score chicks), Jane Austen, and the Elephant Man. The take-home lesson is a kind of outcast morality—better to be an honest pirate than a dishonest queen.
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