The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Directed by Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Screenplay by Gideon Defoe
Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant
How long is The Pirates! Band of Misfits? 88 minutes.
What is The Pirates! Band of Misfits rated? PG for mild action, rude humor and some language.
A Treasure For The Whole Crew. Arrr!
Not only is The Pirates! Band Of Misfits ruthlessly silly, it is also educational. Where else could you learn how much buccaneers love ham? Or that they are masters of disguise in all social circles? Or of their immeasurable contributions to natural history? Aardman Studios, the force behind the UK’s wackiest entertainment – Wallace & Gromit, just for a start – turns its attention to the high seas in this ludicrous and side-splitting romp.
At the height of British naval supremacy, Her Majesty’s court has only one thing in mind: the eradication of all pirates, who cramp Victorian style with their outmoded romanticism. Meanwhile, the West Indies are buzzing with the imminent Pirate Of The Year Awards. The most fearsome captains are caught up in furious last-minute plundering for a shot at the coveted prize. The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is one such contender, but his lovable antics and luxuriant beard are beginning to pale against his modest record of villainy. To distinguish himself from his flamboyant rivals (Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven, and Lenny Henry), he must lead his loyal crew of knuckleheads into an adventure like none other. Who could imagine that a chance encounter with Charles Darwin, sailing homeward on the Beagle, would provide the opportunity?
Peter Lord, co-director of Chicken Run and co-pilot of Aardman, has wisely chosen a voice cast eclectic enough to please everybody. Hugh Grant does his funniest work in decades, and possibly ever, as the fame-hungry Pirate Captain. Martin Freeman (Sherlock), Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter), Anton Yelchin (Terminator: Salvation) are the cream of his crew, each distinguished not by name but by an odd characteristic – respectively, the Pirate With A Scarf, The Pirate With Gout, and The Albino Pirate. This is the peculiar way in which author Gideon Defoe built the world of The Pirates. Adapting the screenplay from his own series of charming and ridiculous novels, Defoe shows a flexibility reminiscent of Douglas Adams in re-focusing his material to suit a feature-length animated adventure. Not sticking too close to the source material, but keeping its spirit intact, was a smart decision. Defoe’s original prose, brimming with arch non-sequiturs, is equally hilarious but might meander too much to stay afloat for ninety minutes. The Aardman eye for detail keeps the visual gags running at a constant rate while quirky dialogue and slapstick timing drive the adventure on. There is scarcely a cup of tea without a monocle dropped in it, nor a door opened or anchor dropped without someone being squished. Every second is an opportunity for lunacy.
By the way, several more exceptional players round out the cast. These include Brian Blessed as the Pirate King, David “Doctor Who” Tennant as Darwin, and Imelda Staunton as the hot-blooded and devilishly resourceful Queen Victoria. In other words, it’s just about everyone but Stephen Fry and Bob Hoskins.
After years of waiting, it is a relief to see a pirate comedy that does not rely on Johnny Depp’s prolonged rum staggers. The massive Disney franchise has plenty of appeal, especially when Bill Nighy and Geoffrey Rush are eating up the script, but a fresh perspective was long overdue. Pirates! Band Of Misfits is well-balanced fare for family consumption. To begin with, it’s about pirates! There are also copious animal antics, of the kind you may recall in The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, from the ship’s prized dodo bird “Polly” and Darwin’s posh simian butler. Who could guess that this movie would be more tastefully frank about a chimpanzee’s “huge, unsightly arse” than, say, the film Chimpanzee? The Pirate Captain and his sea dogs get up to all kinds of rude mischief, with generous innuendo crafted to keep parents chuckling while sailing over the heads of those just a little too young. As our heroes walk the gloomy streets of London, expect throwaway jokes about Jack The Ripper, The Elephant Man, and the royal privilege of eating swans. Soon after, enjoy a chase sequence which involves most of the pirate crew riding a bathtub through a well-appointed Victorian townhouse, and a thoroughly destructive visit to the hallowed halls of the Royal Society.
Nerds and fan-brethren, think of this as Daniel Pinkwater meets Monkey Island, or perhaps The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Spanish Main. The more socially adjusted may simply consider it nonstop fun, no smug allusions required.
As with Aardman properties of the past, the animation in Pirates! is flawless and excellent. These animators consider lighting, atmosphere, and the full kinetic potential of every frame with astonishing diligence. Stop-motion demands incredible time and effort, especially if it is being done well, but the result is worth the sacrifice. There is no doubt that animation is the proper medium for this brand of storytelling, and if given the option one might as well go with the best. Kudos to Gideon Defoe for hitching his enterprise to the Aardman star. As a reward, he is sure to sell a lot of very funny tie-in books. Furthermore, with such an excellent opening, Aardman has paved an easy way for its planned sequel or sequels.
The soundtrack of Pirates! may divide audiences, some of whom do not consider it sufficiently piratical, but given the freewheeling spirit of the movie, it really fits just fine. The old Pogues standard “Fiesta,” announcing the opening festivities aboard the pirate ship, sets exactly the right tone for the voyage ahead. It is true, however, that subsequent cuts by The Clash and Jimmy Cliff are increasingly on the nose with their well-known refrains. The best possible move might have been an all-Pogues soundtrack – cleverly edited around Shane McGowan’s casual obscenity – in the same way that The Five-Year Engagement makes such brilliant use of Van Morrison’s catalogue.
Set sail for the cinema, and be ye quick about it. The Pirates! Band Of Misfits is the best thing to happen to pirate movies since Robert Newton. And that comes from someone who loves The Fog and Muppet Treasure Island, despite what the world may say. Marauders, bring your captives. Lubbers, bring your wenches. Mermaids, bring your manatees. Mom and Dad, bring all the little scuppers and powder monkeys along as well. There be boatloads of adventure and good cheer in these waters, says I.