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The Pirates! Band of Misfits

May 5, 2012
The Pirates! Band of Misfits

It seems like its been a while since we’ve heard from Peter Lord and the stop-motion branch of Aardman Animations. The company was behind last year’s CGI Arthur Christmas, but other than a Nick Park-directed Wallace & Grommit short, you have to go back six or seven years to find the sort of movie that made the company famous. This long wait comes to an end with The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and a welcome sight it is. As usual, it’s a balanced mix of zany and smart; at times a little too smart for the younger audiences it’s likely to draw in.

The titular pirates are indeed a band of misfits, not even meriting actual names. Led by the irrepressible Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), they count among their number the Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), the Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey, redubbed by Anton Yelchin in the American release), and the Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker). This motley crew is the laughingstock of the Pirate of the Year awards, administered by the Pirate King (Brian Blessed); their competition this year includes the far more capable Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven).

So they’ve got their work cut out for them and they set to it with gusto, swiftly taking ghost ships, plague ships, and other goose-eggs in the booty department. At the end of their rope, they capture none other than the H.M.S. Beagle, with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) aboard. There’s no treasure here either, but Darwin recognizes the Pirate Captain’s “big-boned” parrot as a dodo, which by all accounts has been extinct for a century and a half. If presented at the Royal Society’s upcoming science fair it would surely lead to untold riches. The one catch is that they’d have to travel to London, right into the clutches of the rabidly anti-pirate Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

The movie is fun, with bright colors and fast-paced action. I was curious about how well the 3-D would work with claymation, but it turned out fairly well, though no more impressive than usual. I said the bit about action and colors about Arthur Christmas too, so that seems to be one of Aardman’s strong suits, but they also reproduced the fast-paced language. There’s a lot of texture here, which can be rewarding for an adult or an older child, but it’s going to sail right over the heads of younger audiences. Still, they’ve got a fair amount of broad silliness to laugh at; it takes some attention to catch rapid-fire jokes or signs in the background and it takes some cultural background to “get” the choice of “London Calling”, but anyone can laugh at the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate or Charles Darwin’s bemonocled monkey-servant, Mr. Bobo (himself).

Or maybe I’m off-base here; maybe even the youngest American audiences are more sophisticated than I give them credit for. Then again, this is the country where the film was released retitled as The Pirates! Band of Misfits rather than the original book title used almost everywhere else in the English-speaking world: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists.

Worth It yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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