PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS
**** (out of 5)
April 27, 2012
Hugh Grant as THE PIRATE CAPTAIN
Martin Freeman as THE PIRATE WITH A SCARF
Imelda Staunton as QUEEN VICTORIA
David Tennant as CHARLES DARWIN
Jeremy Piven as BLACK BELLAMY
Salma Hayek as CUTLASS LIZ
Directed by: Peter Lord
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Anyone who knows my taste in movies or is familiar with my reviews knows that I am a huge fan of animated films. They routine occupy slots in my Top 10 list of the year, and I was actually somewhat disappointed in 2011 when the animated features didn’t have the same charm that we’ve seen before.
Well, that charm is back, and early in the year. Aardman Animation, the company responsible for the brilliant “Wallace and Gromit” series, has made another winner with “Pirates! Band of Misfits.”
Like the “Wallace and Gromit” feature film, the trailers don’t quite convey the dry and clever brilliance of the final product. What looks to be a spoof of the popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies actually turns out to be a bitingly smart and often hilarious story that mixes history and science with a the swashbuckling you’ll see in a standard pirate film.
The story follows the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who leads a rag tag crew which is often bumbling and incompetent to the annual Pirate of the Year awards in hopes to take home the top prize. But when he is faced with more fearsome and powerful foes, the Pirate Captain strikes out to bring home the biggest booty. Along the way, he stumbles upon Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who recognizes the Captain’s chubby parrot to actually be a surviving dodo bird. This leads them to the Royal Academy of Science under the nose of fierce pirate-hater Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) to claim untold riches.
I’ll admit that at first blanch, this plot synopsis seems rather silly. And that’s kind of the point. Like the rest of Aardman’s animated line, this film is steeped in British humor, something to the point that it is in danger of alienating its American audience. Fortunately, also like “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” the film is also filled with goofy slapstick and sight gags that will make anyone laugh. And it also features a chimpanzee in a butler’s uniform, so the kids will find that funny.
Aside from the unique brand of humor, “Pirates! Band of Misfits” also features their trademarked stop-motion animated style. Shot in stereoscopic 3D, this movie features the best that traditional animation has to offer. While CGI worlds often seem more elaborate and faux realistic, the world of Aardman has a gritty, rustic charm that only comes from the imperfect process of stop-motion animation. It’s refreshing to see that this art form is not lost in the race to make everything overly contemporary.
What makes “Pirates!” work so well is its willingness to take risks with the formula. Very early in the film, the movie seems to go completely off the rails with the introduction of the apparently too-modern Pirate of the Year awards. Then, with the introduction of Charles Darwin, I worried that the film would turn into a bizarre bit of children’s educational programming.
However, this all works in the context of the film. Although the story relies on concepts of science, almost like a “Mr. Wizard” episode gone horribly awry, it still feels like it all exists properly in the universe. That’s just the story, and it’s not a veiled attempt to teach kids about scientific taxonomy. And this works because it’s integral to the story, and the unique perspective offers up a unique look at a pirate film.
Also, unlike the later “Shrek” films and its imitations, “Pirates! Band of Misfits” doesn’t overuse anachronism. It doesn’t rely on every line making a funny about modern terms in a medieval setting. Sure, there’s improper references to Dracula (written 50 years after the film takes place), the Girl Scouts (founded 65 years after the film takes place) and the Pirate Captain referring to his “crew” in the street sense. But these references are rare and random, not the backbone of the film’s comedy.
“Pirates! Band of Misfits” is a gem of a movie that deserves more praise and audience than it’ll probably get. But hopefully some success will inspire more great work from Aardman in the future.