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'Misfits,' ahoy!; Pirate tale nearly swamped by silliness

As soon as we learn that one of the villains of "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" is Queen Victoria (she has "I HATE pirates" on her crest), the sails are set for some swashbuckling give and take with the British fleet, a high seas adventure, a rollicking ride.

And what more would we expect from the people behind "Wallace & Gromit"?

But alas, me hearties, the ship hits some doldrums when it turns out the British Navy isn't the enemy at all -- it's rival pirates competing for a silly Pirate of the Year award (the year is 1837), whose teasing and mocking laughter sound like echoes from a junior high cafeteria.

And instead of defending her empire, the Queen is more like a royal version of Mrs. Tweedy in "Chicken Run" -- calculating and with a sinister secret that has nothing to do with chasing down those who fly the Jolly Roger.

On the other hand, you can't help but cheer for Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his tight-knit crew -- swabbies who think the best part of being a pirate isn't the looting, the shanties, the cutlasses or the scurvy -- it's ham night!

That might be why the captain hasn't won top pirate honors for many a year, and why these misfit shipmates have so much trouble plundering on the high seas. They attack a plague ship, a school field trip ship and a ghost ship before finally boarding The Beagle and drawing swords on Charles Darwin, who is also on a quest for a trophy, this one from the Royal Society for scientific discovery of the year.

It is Darwin who recognizes the pirates' true treasure, their parrot Polly, whose unusual heft is not because she is big-boned but because she is the last dodo on Earth.

And so, under the strains of "London Calling," they head into the mouth of danger, to the Queen's home base of London to seek the riches of the science geeks.

There are giggles and grins -- an ongoing game of shark vs. vampire, shark vs. dragon; the antics of Darwin's Man-panzee chimp -- and stunning action sequences that will have kids bouncing. But still not enough pirating.

The story keeps steam-punk tricks to a minimum, relying instead on a science fair mainstay as an unexpected flashpoint, which kids will also like. Adults will enjoy the voice cast, including Imelda Staunton as Victoria, David Tennant as Darwin, and Salma Hayek, Brendan Gleeson and Al Roker among the pirates.

If, like the pirate ship itself, the journey is a little shaky, and, like the pirates, not as rich as it would like to be (it could really use a touch of Captain Jack Sparrow), it is, also like these pirates, fairly adorable, with a lesson delivered in a gentle way.

No, not the one about valuing friendship and loyalty over riches and prizes.

But rather, in the face of overcoming adversity, this: "It's only impossible if you stop to think about it."

Don't think about this one too much.




2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

WITH THE VOICES OF: Hugh Grant, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant

DIRECTOR: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

RATING: PG for mild action, rude humor and some language.

THE LOWDOWN: The nicest pirate crew around tangles with Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria.