Some industries hand out awards left and right; movies and journalism come to mind.
Other professions have tougher standards, like piracy.
That's the difficulty faced by the Pirate Captain at the start of "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," the rollicking new nautical misadventure from Aardman Animations, the creative powers behind the stop-motion adventures of Wallace & Gromit.
Although he has entered the "Pirate of the Year Contest" for "exactly" 20 years — well, maybe 21, 22, he's not counting and you should stop — he has never won. Perfectly voiced by Hugh Grant, who hits brash, abashed and everything in between, Pirate Captain interrupts Ham Nite, even though it's "the best thing about being a pirate," to pledge his loyal crew to seek the prize again.
Loosely adapted by Gideon Defoe from one of his "Pirates!" novels, and helmed by Peter Lord of "Chicken Run," the whole escapade breezes past, propelled by high spirits, and visual and verbal puns. Often with more buckle than swash, the Pirate Captain and company sail Aardman's handmade claymation into the 3D era, with the very reluctant help of Charles Darwin and the outright animosity of Queen Victoria.
But a man with a parrot can dream, especially if it's a loyal but oddly stout and flightless parrot like Polly, "the heart of the ship." And Pirate Captain does have some points in his favor, like the requisite luxurious beard, half a face full of linguini in red sauce curlicues. And under the prodding of his loyal number two, the Pirate with a Scarf, Pirate Captain admits that he's also good at running people through: "I really enjoy it."
That bit about booty, though, that's a sore point. When Pirate captain snazzily skids in to drop anchor at Blood Island, "named because it looks like some blood," he finds the wanted poster offers 12 doubloons "and a free pen" for his capture. "Go ahead and laugh!" he defies the unsavory crowd in "The Barnacle's Face" tavern. So they do, uproariously and unstintingly.
After all, they've just seen just seen sultry Cutlass Liz, sultrily voiced by Salma Hayek, unveil some real booty, the world's largest gem. Then, Black Bellamy steps off the unrolling tongue of a gigantic, just-beached whale and gold pieces pour out around him. Played by Jermey Piven with all the false bonhomie and glib insults of a piratical agent, BB is a perennial prize winner.
Ah, but if you lack Black Bellamy's golden touch, it can be hard to go looting on an ocean filled with leper ships, ghost ships and class trips. The Pirate Captain is about stop bounding about the main and return to his fallback plan, knitting baby clothes, when the lookout spies yet another ship.
It's an odd, curiosity shop of a ship, filled with things in breakable jars, easily beheadable stuffed animals, collapsing skeletons and far too many orangutan kidneys, presided over by a nebbishy scribbler. But if there's one thing Charles Darwin recognizes straight off, it's that Polly is no parrot. Darwin convinces his pirate captors to change course and instead enter the "Scientist of the Year Contest."
That's held in London, described by the Pirate Captain as "the most romantic city in the world" moments before they sail into a gigantic black cloud, where pirates hang in cages along the dim channel, crying, "Turn back! Turn back!" It seems the land and most of the waves are ruled by the easily unamused Queen Victoria. Her royal motto turns out not to be "Dieu et Mon Droit," but the less expansive, "I Hate Pirates!"
So the Pirate Captain and his trusty crew face some obstacles if they are going to win untold riches, not least because Mr. Darwin seems awfully eager to help. And what are they to make of Mr. Bobo, his tailcoat wearing, um, manservant? "Manpanzee" is Darwin's preferred term.
"I thought if you took a monkey, gave him a monocle and covered up his gigantic unsightly behind, then he would cease to be a monkey," Darwin explains matter-of-factly. His theories still need some work.
All these lines are delivered with happy precision by such expressive vocalists as David Tennant (Darwin), Martin Freeman (Pirate with a Scarf), Imelda Staunton (Queen Victoria) and even Al Roker (Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens). "The Pirates!" is a joy to hear as well as to watch.
When it comes to watching, this is one digital 3D movie where the technology is not treated as a special effect, but merely as a service to the overall effect. The characters and settings still have the eccentric individuality of Aardman's past successes. Most importantly, the results are positively tactile. Metal, ceramic, water, wood and even giant stone sculptures, all seem like the real thing.
And Polly? One can hope that she's the real thing, but one really should examine one's motives.
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" deserves every exclamation point that it can make off with!