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Comedy comes fast and furious in ‘Pirates!’

‘The Pirates! Band of Misfits’

With the voices of:

Captain Hugh Grant

Cutlass Liz Salma Hayek

Black Bellamy Jeremy Piven

Queen Imelda Staunton

Darwin David Tennant

Columbia Pictures presents an animated film directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt. Written by Gideon Defoe. Running time: 88 minutes. Rated PG (for mild action, rude humor and some language). Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: May 28, 2012 8:42AM

The Pirate Captain enjoys his life of adventure on the high seas, but there are a few problems. His crew is having a spirited debate about the best part of pirating: Is it the cutlasses, the looting, the chance to catch exotic diseases or Ham Night? Meanwhile, Queen Victoria has ordered the Royal Navy to get rid of all pirates.

Also, the Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant) really, really wants to win the coveted “Pirate of the Year” award, reasoning that “every time I’ve entered, I’ve failed to win. So I must have a really good chance this time!” He does have a coffee mug that boasts “World’s Best Captain” and once won a ribbon for telling the best anecdote about a squid.

The wonderful folks at Aardman (“Chicken Run,” “Wallace & Gromit”) have created another deliriously silly stop-motion animation delight, filled with giddy pleasures and so many witty details flying by that you wish for a pause button. The “Pirate of the Year” application is whisked away quickly, but we get a glance at some of the questions? Was the booty acquired by exciting adventure, a beauty contest, or perhaps in exchange for bonds? And what is the quality of the beard?

The Pirate Captain’s beard is certainly glossy and bushy enough to win a prize, but he’s not up to some of the other candidates in other categories. Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) and the bling-sporting beauty Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) are out front when it comes to ruthlessness, treasure and their bounties. The Pirate Captain’s “wanted” poster shows a reward of just 12 doubloons and a free pen.

The prospects for Pirate of the Year seem dim until the Pirate Captain boards another booty-less boat, this one carrying Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who recognizes that the Pirate Captain does have one important asset. It seems he’s as poor at ornithology as he is at treasure-detection. The bird he has insisted is a big-boned parrot named Polly is something much more exotic, and if he presents it to the scientific association and wins their Scientist of the Year award, the fame just might qualify him for Pirate of the Year!

But others are interested in the bird. Darwin and his trained monkey manservant Mr. Bobo (who communicates entirely via hilarious cue-card style signs) and Queen Victoria herself want Polly as well. The captures and rescues involve various disguises, and the sublimely inventive chase scenes combine Rube Goldbergian intricacy with Jackie Chan-style timing.

The pleasures we expect from an Aardman film are all here, including humor that manages to be both wild and understated. The silent Mr. Bobo, cautioned to be quiet, patiently holds up a second sign repeating the same word, but smaller. And the brilliantly executed action sequences dazzle. The chase scene through Darwin’s house has split-second timing through a museum’s worth of artifacts, including an Easter Island head. The bright and eclectic soundtrack includes a funny new song from the Flight of the Conchords. In all the action and comedy, there’s some warmth, even tenderness, as those clay faces become surprisingly expressive, and a moment of friendship and loyalty is genuinely touching.

The British Aardman team re­freshingly makes few concessions for American sensibilities (only the most devoted Anglophiles will catch the Blue Peter and Slocombe references) and none for children. Gideon Defoe’s script, based on his series of books, is filled with humor that challenges as it amuses.

But the film’s U.S. distributor decided that Americans would be put off by the original title. It was released in the United Kingdom as “The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists!,” which is funnier and more accurate. The switch to a more “marketable” generic title is disappointing for a film that so amply rewards its confidence in the audience.

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