The Pirates! Band of Misfits
What It Is
“What’s the best bit about being a pirate?” The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) walks in on a lively debate among his crewmembers, and proceeds to instruct: it’s not the looting or the cutlasses, as much as these may be, and it’s not scurvy or even “scantily clad mermaids.” It is, declares the Pirate Captain, “Ham Night” — at which point he moonwalks a little and then offers up a big-fat-pink slab of meat and has at it with his sword, so the slices fly up in the air and land perfectly on everyone’s plates, as they all ooh and aah.
Loopy and surprising and lots of fun, the Pirate Captain’s show sets up what’s to come in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the latest delight from Aardman Animation, best known as the makers of Wallace & Gromit. That is, it sets up his preposterous confidence, his crew’s utter devotion to him, and the film’s attitude toward all, which is at once irreverent and affectionate.
The plot, set in 1837, has the Pirate Captain in pursuit of the Pirate of the Year Award, given to the contestant with the most booty and presented at a big Vegas-y stage show. He’s a decided underdog in the competition, and all the other pirates — Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) — make fun of his aspiration.
When the Pirate Captain’s efforts to secure booty in the usual way fall short (the ships he means to plunder end up carrying plague, ghosts, and schoolchildren on a field trip), he finds something like a workaround. This falls into his lap when he boards the Beagle, hoping it’s full of gold, only to discover Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who identifies the Pirate Captain’s beloved parrot Polly as the last surviving dodo. Promising the Pirate Captain that he’ll earn academic accolades and money too, “Chuck” as the Pirate Captain calls him), also has his own ambitions.
Never one to turn down a challenge, the Pirate Captain heads directly to London to reap these rewards, even though Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) has outlawed all pirates from entering the city. No surprise, events don’t go quite as planned, but as they go awry, the Pirate Captain and his crew are consistently entertaining and — following a brief bout of disappointment and self-doubt — amusingly optimistic.
Why It’s Fun
The digital version of Aardman Animation’s signature claymation is colorful and energetic, even with 3D glasses (with a couple of jokes about 3D, including one where a pirate thrusts his sword toward the audience to close out a scene).
The characters are charming, their comedy alternating between low-key and antic, between sly verbal gags and slapsticky physical humor. In London, the crew runs into a couple of 19th century icons, including the Elephant Man and his romantic interest, Jane Austen. Darwin is served by his assistant, a “man-panzee” in a butler’s coat who can’t speak but instead holds up cards to tell you what he’s thinking (“Uh-oh” comes up a few times).
The Pirate Captain’s crew consists of misfits, as the movie’s title suggests. He suggests that one might be “closer to a chair or a coatrack” than a man (whereupon the pirate shows off his wooden limbs) and calls another the “Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate” (Ashley Jensen). Indeed, she’s a woman pretending to be a man by wearing an outrageous fake beard. During one escapade, the Pirate Captain drops into her soapy tub, but amid the commotion, doesn’t notice that she’s not a man.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of Gideon Defoe’s children’s books series, The Pirates!, will see that the movie is a loose adaptation, with some grown-up verbal and visual jokes included.
Fans of Aardman Animation’s clever work will be enchanted: the team’s work is becoming more refined over time, while maintaining its signature wit and sweetness.
Fans of pop music will appreciate the soundtrack’s inclusion of the Clash’s “London Calling,” the Pogues’ “Fiesta,” and Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” among other tracks.
What To Be Aware Of
Some scenes feature scary animated creatures (skeletons, whales who like to swallow ships, ghosts, sailors with plague, one whose arm falls off). In one scene, the queen calls in an executioner, who stands over the Pirate Captain with a huge blade... until the queen calls off the killing.
The pirates who make fun of the Pirate Captain are pretty mean, but his crew supports him with kind words of encouragement, some quite funny.
The Pirate Captain makes a bad decision concerning Polly that puts her in danger of being eaten by a club of exotic animal eaters, depicted as very cruel.
Cutlass Liz is very curvy (and shows cartoony cleavage), and in one fantasy scene, coos and caresses the Pirate Captain, as if to seduce him.
References to pirate activities include vague sexual allusions (those “scantily clad mermaids”) as well as violence (“I do enjoy running people through!”).
Language includes the phrase “hell’s barnacle.”
9 out of 10
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Director: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Cast: Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Piven, Brian Blessed, Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek, Martin Freeman, Ashley Jensen, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Russell Tovey
Studio: Columbia Pictures
US Premiere: April 27, 2012
UK Premiere: March 28, 2012