Comic-Con: Sony Animation panel puts Aardman’s ‘Pirates’ front and center

SAN DIEGO – It was a relaxing, enjoyable day in Hall H, and no one is more shocked to type those words than I am.

“Twilight” fans lined up for days, literally, to get into the first panel of the morning, and I was worried about how that would impact my ability to get into Hall H for the panel afterwards.  Turns out it was incredibly simple, and I was able to just stroll right in, early enough that I ended up seeing about half of the “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” panel.  It’s still strange to me to see Bill Condon up there in the midst of all of this, and I’m not going to write about the film at this point.  I will say that the guy sitting behind me with Tourette’s made the entire experience much more surreal, though, and the only person who dropped the F-bomb in that room more times today was Guillermo Del Toro.

Speaking of which, once the “Twilight” panel ended, but before the Sony Animation panel started, we got an unscheduled sneak peek at Morgan Spurlock’s new Comic-Con documentary, and it looks like a very heartfelt and genuine portrait of fandom, not a movie that makes fun of geeks.  Some familiar faces like Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, and Seth Rogen show up as talking head interviews, and there are lots and lots of costumes and fans on display as well. I thought the money quote came from Del Toro, who said, “Comic-Con is like a Russian doll.  There are many Comic-Cons within Comic-Con.”  Very true.  I may spend my time focused on Hall H and the film events, but it’s possible to come here and never once set foot in that room and have an amazing time.  It all depends on what you want to get out of the con, and I look forward to seeing “Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” this fall.

Ralph Garman walked out to introduce the panel, and while the name of the thing was “Sony Animation,” the truth is that today was all about Aardman.  That’s a good thing.  I’m still not clear on what happened between DreamWorks Animation and Aardman, but I think it was a huge mistake for DreamWorks to let that relationship go sour.  Betting against the people behind “Wallace & Gromit” is never a good idea, and while I didn’t know anything about the two films they brought to promote today, I can honestly say that they look like they are clearly in line with earlier projects from the company.

If you didn’t see the first trailer today for “The Pirates! Band Of Misfits,” you should check it out.  It’s very silly stuff, and this is one is conventional stop-motion animation, which still seems to be where the real magic happens for Aardman. 

Peter Lord was then brought out onstage, carrying a few of the stop-motion puppets.  Lord is the other big Aardman genius.  Many people know Nick Park thanks to Wallace and Gromit, but Lord was the one who directed “Chicken Run,” and he’s got a really wicked, silly sense of humor.  He talked about how important stop motion is the company and how it’s actually cheaper than CGI.  “Everyone always talks about how slow this is, but it’s actually fun to do.  It’s much more fun than the CG animation to do.”

Lord talked about designing the characters and really embracing the notion of making a ridiculous and funny pirate film.  “It’s the story of The Pirate Captain.  Cheerful, optimistic, outgoing.  Played by this obscure British performer named Hugh Grant.”  He went through the rest of the characters as well, like The Pirate with a Scarf, played by Martin Freeman, who is the second-in-command and the one who really loves being a pirate.  He fully supports the Captain at every turn.  There’s Brendon Gleeson as The Pirate with Gout, and the hilarious Ashley Jensen (best known in America for “Extras”) as The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate.  The movie’s absurdist sense of humor is evident in characters like the ship’s “parrot” named Polly, who is obviously a Dodo.

The pirates may love their work, but they’re not very good at it, and the Pirate Captain is frustrated by their constant failure to help him win the Pirate Of The Year award.  Black Bellamy, voiced by Jeremy Piven, is the one who always seems to win that award, and there’s another contender in the form of Cutlass Liz, voiced by Selma Hayek.  When Lord talked about her recording sessions, he got a dreamy faraway look on his face and sighed.  “Best day of the whole shoot.”

It seems that these pirates are always picking the wrong ships to attack.  They encounter lepers, schoolchildren, and even nudists, but no gold.  Finally, they seize a ship with an odd little man named Charles Darwin aboard, voiced by David Tennant.  Once they have him, they head to London, which is where they encounter the biggest, nastiest, meanest bad guy in the film… Queen Victoria, with Imelda Staunton in fine form as her voice.  We also saw a little bit of The Pirate King with the unmistakable pipes of Brian Blessed giving life to the character, and yes, the film does eventually end up at the Pirate Of The Year awards, where I presume comic mayhem ensues.

Thanks to the way Aardman is so much a part of UK culture, they found it very easy to put together the cast they wanted.  Lord talked about how proud he is of the work they do, and so they put together a clips package to show how they actually make these movies.  I love watching the stop-motion process and seeing how it all comes together, and it looks like this is, in every way, an Aardman movie.  I’m really curious to see it when it arrives in March of 2012.

We’ll see their other film first, though, and we saw a new 3D trailer for “Arthur Christmas,” their CGI animated holiday film for this year.  Peter Baynham, the screenwriter, was on-hand to talk about the origins of the film, which appears to be a movie that addresses the impossible logic of Santa Claus.  In this film, we’ll see how Santa delivers all those presents in one night every year, and we’ll also learn that there have been a total of 18 Santas since the beginning of the tradition, and that it is a family business that gets handed down.  We saw Mission Control and the S1, the supersonic gigantic jumbo-jet sized sled that he uses, and we saw a funny sequence where Santa is in a child’s room when the child starts to wake up, leading to a rescue mission by the elves.

With voices like Jim Broadbent (Santa the 18th), Hugh Laurie (Steve, Santa’s oldest son), Bill Nighy (the shockingly un-PC Grandsanta), and James McAvoy as Arthur, the youngest member of the family, it’s a good cast, and even if the humor skews a little young, it still looks inventive and silly.

It wasn’t a long panel, but it was promising, and it’s nice to see that Aardman’s still in the mix, and that their ambition is undulled by time.

“Arthur Christmas” is in theaters November 23, 2011.
“The Pirates! Band Of Misfits” is in theaters March 30, 2012.