Mark Reviews Movies

The Pirates! Band of Misfits


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Lord

Cast: The voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Anton Yelchin, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen, Al Roker, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed

MPAA Rating: PG (for mild action, rude humor and some language)

Running Time: 1:28

Release Date: 4/27/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 26, 2012

There is just something about the craft of clay animation that makes us admire it just a little more than other forms of the art. It's partly in knowing how it's accomplished (very, very slowly with very, very tiny movements over days, weeks, months); it's partly in how tangible that effort is in the actual results. The subtle jitters on screen as people try to perfectly choreograph the miniscule camera movement with the insignificant adjustment of one of the clay figures. The sense of the invisible puppeteer giving life to a model that took more time to design than it takes for it to move from one side of a small set to another (And that is a long time). It's whatever is in our psyche that draws us to Pinocchio (A puppet with no strings, you say?).

The toil of the animators is apparent in almost every frame, and the impulse is to reward them simply for their obvious efforts. At least The Pirates! Band of Misfits, created by the masters of the trade at Aardman, has that going for it.

The sights here are sometimes marvelous, like the big moment when a whale pops out of the ocean and lands right at the door of a pirate tavern or the scenes of the misfit band's ship (It's only a model) set to sail on the high seas with the aid of computer animation. The movie's visual panache is without question (Again, those pesky 3-D glasses diminish a movie's visuals; these are bold colors, washed away by a useless gimmick).

The story, too, starts out with promise. Aboard an old, creaky ship, the Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant) and his only-merry-on-ham-night men enjoy the pirating life. They don't have names but descriptive monikers. There are the Pirate with a Scarf (voice of Martin Freeman), the Albino Pirate (voice of Anton Yelchin), the Pirate with Gout (voice of Brendan Gleeson), and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (voice of Ashley Jensen) who wears a fake beard, to name a few. Their mascot is Polly, a "parrot" everyone assumes is just fat, though most will think it looks like a dodo. They would be right.

The crew is in a rut. Their plundering skills are as good as any other pirate crew; they just have a problem with luck. Upon setting out to nab some booty, they wind up raiding a ships filled with plague victims, boy scouts, and ghosts, which leads to the old cartoon trick of the Pirate Captain only falling into the water when he realizes he's not actually standing on anything.

This is a problem for the Pirate Captain, who desperately wants to win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. His competition is daunting: Peg Leg Hastings (voice of Lenny Henry) has far more gold, Cutlass Liz (voice of Salma Hayek) has stolen the world's biggest diamond, and Black Bellamy (voice of Jeremy Piven) is the one who brings that whale to the pub at the pirates' secret meeting place (It's called Blood Island because it looks like a bit of blood). Despite the laughs of his fellow pirates ("Go on; laugh," he threatens, and they do), the Pirate Captain is certain he can win this year if he only puts his mind to it.

The turning point for the Pirate Captain and the movie itself is when the pirates board the Beagle and find a lonely Charles Darwin (voice of David Tennant), journaling every detail of his scientific expedition (even when he's walking the plank) and moaning that he'll probably never have a girlfriend (At this point, it might be relevant to mention that the movie's original title was The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists; apparently, some people think Americans don't like science (I wonder wherever they got that idea)). Darwin notices that Polly isn't an ordinary "parrot" and promises the Pirate Captain that the bird will surely win an award beyond measure at the national science fair in London.

The screenplay by Gideon Defoe (based on the first two books in his series about these characters) gets far more mileage out of these characters when they are simply mucking about—getting into arguments about the best part of a pirate's life, sailing while leaving behind red dots in the water so that their progress can be seen on a map, and otherwise doing very silly things for no reason more than that they must. The structure of an actual plot, with the Pirate Captain becoming too big for his pantaloons and facing off against a pirate-hating Queen Victoria (voice of Imelda Staunton), weakens their effect (Darwin's monkey butler, who wears a monocle and "speaks" in flash cards, remains amusing throughout, though).

The material thrives in the randomness of its first act—the sight gags, the development of the crew as a malfunctioning unit, the genuine sense that anything could happen. While the movie manages to retain a unique feeling, The Pirates! Band of Misfits still loses much of its unruly spirit as the plot continues in earnest.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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