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Film Review: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012; Directed by Peter Lord & Jeff Newitt)

The latest stop-motion claymation feature from cheeky Brit outfit Aardman Animations employs the same mixture of verbal wit, visual punning, and good-natured action that audiences fell for in Chicken Run and the Wallace & Gromit series of shorts. It also gently tweaks not only the generic conventions of Hollywood pirate epics but also the towering personalities of Victorian British culture. But its giddier elements are bogged down in a soggy plot and undermined by head-scratching compromises for the film’s American release that do not destroy the product but certainly do not improve it either.

I don't think this still requires any set-up whatsoever, do you?

Based on Gideon Defoe’s comedy books about an incompetent band of piratical wannabes, The Pirates! Band of Misfits commences its half-measures with its very title. Entitled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists after Defoe’s first book upon its original UK release a month ago, the altered title is the most openly derogatory such swap in deference to supposed American unintellectualism since the US publishers of the first Harry Potter book decided that nobody wanted to buy a book with “philosopher” in its title from their local Walmart. It’s a minor point, perhaps, but it’s a bit of an initial drag to the film’s momentum.

The film has got a bit of momentum, once it gets the wind in its sails. Sometimes a bit too much, in point of fact; the surge of clever detail can get exhausting before too long. To kick things off, we meet our clownishly self-deluded swashbuckler hero, dubbed Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) with a bit of self-knowing parodic intent, and his mostly hapless crew in the midst of their most beloved quasi-piratical practice: Ham Night. One of the film’s funniest scenes and the first of many, many porcine jokes, the enthusiasm shown by Captain and his minions for such an innocently domestic bit of diversion sums up their amusing un-pirate-ness succinctly right off the bat.

We meet the comic stereotypes that stand in for a crew, practically one by one. There’s the Pirate with a Scarf, the captain’s hopelessly loyal Number Two who could only possibly be voiced by Martin Freeman; the Albino Pirate, a guileless naif whose childish utterances would likely have been funnier in a British accent (originally provided by Russell Tovey) than they are in a flat American one (Anton Yelchin for the US release); the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), an obvious woman in disguise with sizable hips and a fake beard; the Pirate with Gout, whose Irish brogue is recognizably that of the great Brendan Gleeson; and the enigmatically named Pirate who Likes Kittens and Sunsets (Al Roker). Vitally, there’s also Polly, a parrot that is actually a dodo.

This is a band of misfits indeed, and they soon find themselves embroiled in an adventure with scientists. In order to show his flashier pirate competitors (voice-cameos for Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, and Brit comedian Lenny Henry) that he isn’t a “complete loser” (as one of his own crew members puts it), Pirate Captain seeks to win the illustrious 1837 Pirate of the Year prize by capturing the most booty (by which I mean treasure, although there’s more rounded female derrieres present than might be expected from a children’s film). After a string of failed boardings of treasure-less vessels, Pirate Captain happens upon the legendary Beagle and its famed naturalist Charles Darwin, rendered by the script and the voice work of David Tennant as a lonely lovesick nerd surrounded by his pickled biological specimens and a monkey servant that he’s trained to communicate through cue cards.

Astonished by the Captain’s very much unextinct dodo, Darwin convinces the pirates to accompany him to the Royal Society in London to present it to the nation’s preeminent scientific minds and win untold riches. Via multiple misadventures, they do so, and in the process attract the attentions and finally the implacable wrath of notorious pirate-hater (in this story, anyway) Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who has sinister designs on Polly.

'How many monkey butlers will there be?'
'One at first, but he'll train others.'

The plot is, as mentioned, little more than a lark, with the intercenine crew conflict over the Captain’s blissfully unscrupulous conduct sparking a dramatic split at the expected point which will, of course, be resolved just in the nick of time during the climactic face-off on the Queen’s steam-powered yacht against a katana-wielding Ninja Vicky. Far too many key points of the story turn on the supposedly amazing value and appeal of the fairly dull dodo to not only the pirate crew but to the great biologists and fickle public of the age as well.

Speaking of the age, its grandees Darwin and Victoria are aggressively demystified, to say the least; the father of natural selection is a slippery sadsack who just wants a girlfriend, while the long-reigning monarch is compiled of bulbous shapes and syrupy-sweet royal coquettishness masking toxic intent. The scenes in London (“the most romantic city in the world!” the Albino Pirate exclaims, the sharp English self-deprecation slipping through Yelchin’s suburban Yankee vowels) in particular unleash the trademarked Aardman visual puns and referential silliness on period stand-bys. A pursuing bobby is flattened by a falling swine during a chase through the stone streets (police, pig, get it?), and the Pirate Captain’s post-science-prize fame sees him winning the admiration of Jane Austen away from the Elephant Man. Never mind that Austen died in 1817, before Victoria was even born and a full 20 years before she took the throne, or that Joseph Merrick was a famous human curiosity in the late 1880s, or that the Brontë sisters, with their well-known weakness for roguish ne’er-do-wells like the Captain, would have been both more contemporaenous and more apt subjects for this specific gag (Anne could even look on disapprovingly). This a wacky clay-animated movie about pirates, after all, not a history lesson.

But despite copious laughs and a rapidfire visual humour aesthetic that would surely be rewarded by further viewings, The Pirates! goes in circles more often than not, much like the Captain’s ship careens around maps in a repeated satire of a tired adventure flick travel montage trope. There is always a generous soul to Aardman productions; it can be witnessed in the facial structures of the clay-made characters, which tend to default to a wide grin even in the case of the villains. The handmade quality of the thing persists through the flash and bang (and, one would imagine, even through the studio-imposed 3D), but the undeniable energy of the film feels spent well before it sails into port at long last.

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