“You can’t always just say ‘aarrr’ at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything all right.” This is wise advice and not only for pirates and piratephiles of all ages. It’s also the closest thing to a lesson — also: pigs are not fruit — in the delightful stop-motion animation “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” a story of high-seas silliness from that British national treasure Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit). Exquisitely detailed — from its ocean breakers to the wavelike curlicues on a pirate’s luxurious beard — the movie is a curiosity cabinet of visual pleasures but so breezy and lightly funny that you may not realize at first how good it is. (You’re too busy grinning.)
Directed by the Aardman auteur Peter Lord (“Chicken Run”) and written by Gideon Defoe, extracting this and that from a novel in his “Pirates!” series (“The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists”), the story centers on the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant with verve and great timing) and his desire to win best pirate of the year. In other words it’s based on nothing other than the filmmakers’ need to put all the characters, sets and jokes into meticulous, whirring motion. Having lost the contest year after year, the Pirate Captain believes his time has come, despite being out-doublooned by his rivals, notably Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), who strides in on the unfurled tongue of a whale like a Las Vegas Jonah stepping off the red carpet.
The American accent tips Black Bellamy as a villain, until a greater evil waddles into the picture, Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton, the tiny Pepto-Bismol-hued terror from the Harry Potter movies). Spherical from bust to bustle, the queen has a lusty appetite — she’s first seen busily eating while contemplating a map of her colonial conquests, which wittily suggests that she has already won best pirate of the year (lifetime).
The filmmakers don’t press the point. Mr. Lord zips through jokes and sets alike, knowing that to tarry and admire either might ruin both. And anyway there are ships to plunder and other serious historical personages to pillage, including Charles Darwin (David Tennant), whom the Pirate Captain stumbles across while attacking the Beagle.
Darwin becomes the unlikely bridge to Queen Victoria, dirty old London Town, a flirty young Jane Austen, the Elephant Man and a succession of gently madcap scenes, many of the best involving his mute but expressive chimp manservant or “man-panzee,” Mr. Bobo. “I thought,” Darwin explains, “if you took a monkey, gave him a monocle and covered up his gigantic unsightly behind, then he would cease to be a monkey.” (Mr. Bobo wears a tailcoat, but either he tucks his tail or doesn’t have one, which really means he is a chimp. Then again, he’s also a cartoon.) In the popular imagination, monkeys served Darwin, as it were — Mr. Defoe enjoys wreaking light havoc on history, which suits Aardman’s quiet sophistication — and Mr. Bobo does the same for this fictionalized naturalist, only in spats and striped trousers.
More eccentric than whimsical, “Band of Misfits” is set in a somewhat louder, rowdier key than some of Aardman’s earlier charmers. It’s the first of the studio’s stop-motion features to be shot in digital and the first shot in 3-D, developments that some Aardman purists may find the outrageous equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric or David Fincher going digital. (The studio first used computer-animated imagery in its 2006 release “Flushed Away.”) Except that the 3-D is integrated seamlessly with hand-shaped figures that are still so tactile yet now pop a little off the screen, as if they were offering you the chance to pick them up.
Much is often made of the handmade attractions of Aardman’s work, of the signature imperfections and literal fingerprints on its creations. These tiny dents and fingerprint whorls are reminders that these movies were made by people who molded clay with their hands instead of only manipulating symbols on computers. But these human touches also give the movies an extraordinary haptic quality — you watch them, but you almost feel them in your fingers too — that can transport you back to childhood pleasures, like squishing Play-Doh and making crooked clay pots for your parents. That’s partly why the movies seem more personal than many computer animations and why, for all its digital flourishes, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” like other Aardman films, is a wonderful time machine.
“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). You wouldn’t want the children to have all the fun, would you?