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Plenty of swash and buckle in Aardman’s The Pirates, bird is the word in The Raven

by Mark Burger

Adapted from Gideon Defoe’s children’s books, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is the latest animated lark from Britain’s Aardman Studios (purveyors of “Wallace & Gromit” and, more recently, Arthur Christmas), and clearly stamped with the Aardman attitude.

Although clearly aimed at small fry, grownups will enjoy the background bits of business and non sequiturs, many of which are just as amusing as what’s going on in the foreground. The Pirates! won’t advance the medium significantly, but it’s certainly a pleasing springtime romp.

The story opens with the efforts of the Pirate Captain (voice by Hugh Grant) to be crowned Pirate of the Year by his colleagues, which he has long sought, and ends with a frantic chase to rescue said Pirate Captain’s beloved parrot Polly — actually a dodo bird, thought to be extinct and coveted by no less than Queen Victoria (voice by Imelda Staunton), portrayed here as a piratehating harridan with a taste for rare delicacies including dodo bird.

In between are the expected barrage of visual gags, verbal puns and slapstick antics that make the film an easy bet for the family crowd. Under the confident direction of Peter Lord, there’s a comfortable craziness to The Pirates! The film sends up the usual pirate conventions in funny fashion, but with a relatively relaxed, as opposed to rapid-fire, delivery.

It cannot be said that the film’s tone is subversive, but it’s definitely cheeky, toying as it does with the historical setting and the personages who populated it. In addition to the aforementioned Victoria, and rarely has the monarch been portrayed in so (deliciously) nasty a fashion, another pivotal character is none other than scientist and evolutionist Charles “Chuck” Darwin (voice by David Tennant), presented here as a bumbling egghead who has long pined for Victoria. And how many animated films made for children boast Clash’s “London Calling” on its soundtrack?

Brendan Gleeson, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven, Martin Freeman, Brian Blessed and Lenny Henry are among the other familiar voices, and they all deliver with gusto, but the show is stolen by a newcomer, “Mr. Bobo,” a chimpanzee of such advanced intelligence that he runs rings around his human counterparts. Of course, being a primate Mr. Bobo cannot speak, but thanks to his endless supply of appropriate cue cards, he’s got the answer to everything.

Director James McTeigue’s The Raven is the cinematic equivalent of the old “penny dreadful” novels of the 19th century: It’s lurid, overblown, and exciting. Overall credibility, or coherence, is secondary to the immediate, visceral impact. For much of the way, however, the film is a giddy, gory shocker with generous doses of black comedy.

Set, appropriately enough, in 1849, the story purports to detail what exactly, and actually, happened to Edgar Allan Poe in the days leading up to his death. It clearly falls into the realm of historical fiction, with the emphasis on the fiction.

John Cusack has a fine time in the pivotal role of Poe, delivering his ripe dialogue with wry humor and mock grandiosity. Despite a goatee and gaunt appearance, Cusack cannot help but appear more robust than the actual Poe was. It hardly makes any difference; none of this is to be taken remotely seriously.

Filmed in Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia — which is undoubtedly why 19th century Baltimore boasts such Gothic architecture — the story follows the (mostly self-)celebrated writer as he shuffles through an alcoholic haze, railing against any and all in his misanthropic mania.

Poe’s mistrust of his fellow man is exemplified in a series of brutal murders, each one inspired by elements in his published stories. The police come knocking, and Poe is recruited to aid them in tracking down the fiend.

The case then takes a personal turn when Poe’s beloved Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) is promptly snatched during a masked ball — “Masque of the Red Death,” anyone? — and held captive by the killer. Unless Poe can piece the puzzle together, Emily’s a goner.

There are nods to Poe’s work throughout, although the filmmakers are occasionally heavy handed in meting out the metaphors. Other influences include, but aren’t limited to: Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Hammer Films and Sherlock Holmes, to name but a few. Devotees of Edgar Allan Poe and the horror genre — can the two conceivably be mutually exclusive? — will enjoy these references, which come fast and thick, as thick as the fog that frequently shrouds the proceedings, courtesy cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann.

None of the characters is remotely as interesting as Poe, although they’re not badly played.

Luke Evans is appropriately square-jawed as the diligent inspector Field, often playing straight man to Cusack. Eve is indeed lovely as the endangered Emily, and Brendan Gleeson (heard in The Pirates!) plays Emily’s antagonistic father with his customary relish. Kevin McNally plays Poe’s put-upon editor, and the film throws some amusing jabs at the newspaper business, be it 19th or 20th or 21st century.

The mechanics of the mystery ultimately don’t hold up to close, or even casual, scrutiny, as the filmmakers eventually succumb to style over substance. Nevertheless, The Raven is not without its ghoulish charms, particularly in Cusack’s sly, sympathetic interpretation of the iconic Poe.

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