Deneb does The Pirates! Band of Misfits

pirates_in_an_adventure_with_scientists_ver3_xlg“Prepare to be boarded, nerds!” 

The Scoop: 2012 PG, directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newit and starring Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed.

Tagline: Let’s go plundering!

Summary Capsule: Pirates! Pirates are funny. Yo-ho, Jolly Roger, all that jazz.

denebbannerDeneb’s Rating: 2.7 hams out of five.

Deneb’s Review: Let’s face it, Britain – you can be very strange when you put your mind to it.

Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you’re quite as aggressively peculiar as your fellow island nation Japan, or your neighbors across the channel the Franco-Belgians, but seriously, you gave birth to The Goon Show, Monty Python and The Goodies, among others. From your shores have issued forth Eddie Izzard, Chumbawamba, and that one British member of the Monkees (at least, I think he was British. I’m not sure.). You, Britain, may have a cheerful toffee-and-shortbread exterior, but inside is a gooey raspberry center, and the seeds encased therein are pure weirdness that sticks in your teeth. (As was that metaphor. I regret nothing.)

Aaaanyway. One particular teeth-sticky weirdness seed that has recently reached the U.S of A is the film we are about to examine. Let’s not dally any further, shall we?

The Pirates! Band of Misfits is set in a (to say the least) highly fictionalized edition of the year 1837. In this version of things, pirates still roam the high seas, much to the eternal fury of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who hates pirates more than anything else in the world, and has more or less devoted her entire reign to tracking them down and squashing them.

So naturally, we’re not taking her viewpoint of things, as that would be boring. Instead, our main protagonists are, well, pirates. Rather generic pirates, at that – in fact, specifically generic pirates. There’s the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), there’s the Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), who is somewhat on the pale side; there’s the Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker) and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) (guess what – ahem – ‘his’ secret is) – and then there’s their captain (Hugh Grant), named… the Pirate Captain. Helped on by his long-suffering first mate (Martin Freeman), the Pirate With a Scarf (otherwise known as ‘Number Two’), he leads his doughty crew on a non-stop quest for… well, piratey things. Like booty! And ham!

The thing is, though, they really aren’t very good at it. Like, at all. This is enough of a problem when they’re just farting around the high seas being pirates, but it becomes downright unfortunate in the context of the plot. See, it seems there’s a closely-knit fraternity of buccaneers out there, and they hold an annual awards ceremony to announce (hats off, please) the Pirate of the Year! The Pirate Captain has been trying for years to win this award, but he’s failed every single time – not surprising, given that there are hotshots like Peg-Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) around to claim the glory.

Still, “if at first you don’t succeed” and all that rot, so the Captain and his crew sail forth once again to attempt the impossible. And for once they might actually stand a chance, because guess who they happen to run into – Charles Darwin (David Tennant)! Yes, that one.

Darwin himself is not exactly an instant path to riches, mind you, but he may be the key to one. It seems that Polly, the crew’s beloved mascot and the Captain’s treasured pet, is not, in fact, a parrot like they’ve always thought she was – she’s a rather diminutive dodo, quite possibly the last one in existence. This discovery sets Darwin all atwitter (how often do you get to write that sentence?), not simply because it’s an astounding scientific find – no no, there’s more than that on his mind. It turns out that scientists also have an annual awards ceremony, and if he can use Polly to win Scientist of the Year, it may be his chance at a still greater prize – Queen Victoria! (The poor boy’s in love, you see.)

Of course, he’s not the only one who’s interested in this development – the Pirate Captain is, too, especially when the possibility of a large cash prize is dangled in front of his nose. Against the objections of Number Two, he decides to set sail to London and win the award himself – a tricky venture, given that it’s right under the Queen’s rage-flared nose.

The thing is, though, that Polly turns out to be a very popular bird. Darwin wants her. The Queen wants her. Everybody wants her – including, of course, the pirates, who like their pet birdy right where she is, thank you very much.

Will the Captain be able to win the Award(s), get the treasure, gain the respect of his peers, stay the hell out of Victoria’s way, and keep his dodo safe from harm? Uh… look over there! A coconut! *runs*

The first thing that should be noted about The Pirates! Band of Misfits is that if you’re seeing it under that title (as I did), you are not getting the full, unexpurgated version. In the UK, it’s called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, after the first book in the series on which the film is based, and it features a number of slightly racy jokes that were cut out of the US version, as well as American voice actors re-dubbing some of the characters. I find this last one baffling. Did Dreamworks think we’d be wandering out disturbed and bewildered to demand our money back if we didn’t hear a few American accents? What’s the story here?

Still, that’s the version I saw, and the only one available on my side of the pond, so that’s the version I’m reviewing. (And heck, all the American actors involved do a perfectly serviceable job, so it’s not like I’m particularly annoyed.) If some kind person from the UK wants to chime in with their impressions of the original, that would be fine with me.

That being clarified, is TP!BoM any good? Well… yeah.

OK, so that positive-yet-unenthusiastic response requires clarification. Here’s the deal – I really like Aardman Animation’s stuff. The Wallace and Gromit series are classics, and just about everything else they’ve put out has been at the very least watchable. The Pirates! is no exception.

However, does it rank up with my favorites? Not… quite.

In pursuit of information that’s slightly less ambiguous, let’s dive right into the good and the bad. We shall start with the good.

There’s a lot that’s good about this movie. The stop-motion animation is up to the studio’s usual high standards, and meshes near-flawlessly with added CGI elements. The voice actors are obviously having a huge amount of fun, and dive into their roles with relish – as usual, more on that later. The overall look and feel is pulled off very well, a brightly colored mishmash of anachronisms that bring to life a sort of stylized, generalized past that couldn’t care less about being accurate and concentrates instead on pulling increasingly bizarre stuff out of its hat. I mean, honestly, how can you hate a film that features dodos, a crazed Bond-villain version of Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin’s desire for a girlfriend as integral elements of the main plot? You can’t, that’s how.

That being said, well…

Here’s the thing. There is nothing that’s actually bad about this movie, and it has earned the right to hold its head up high among Aardman films. However, one of the things about the other films that caught my attention in the first place was how well they integrated other elements into the comedy. The Wallace and Gromit shorts, for instance, are very funny, but they’re funny in an understated sort of way that doesn’t draw attention to itself, while the basic plots are generally more of a thriller/mystery/sci-fi sort of thing. This is true of most of Aardman’s output – while there’s always an element of humor involved, the films are not generally comedies so much as lighthearted versions of some other kind of film. Chicken Run is a Steve McQueen-esque ‘breaking out of the prison camp’ movie, Curse of the Were-Rabbit is old-style Hammer horror, etc., etc.

TP!BoM, however, is not a lighthearted version of a classic swashbuckler. It is a comedy first and foremost, and that is where it gets a bit wobbly.

Now, I’m not criticizing the movie’s style of comedy, nor the quality of its output – it’s good, silly stuff, and very much in the classic style of Monty Python, albeit more kid-friendly. And that is where the root of the problem lies.

Monty Python’s strengths were their humor, yes, but also their pacing – they knew just how long to keep a bit going, and when to stop. That’s why their shows and movies were all collections of skits and sketches, sometimes with a connecting narrative running through them, sometimes not. Their strengths were in the moments, the gags, the quotes, the “Brave Sir Robin ran away” and “Killer Rabbit” sort of stuff, not in characters or plotting. They recognized this and played to their strengths, and that’s why their stuff was so consistently good.

TP!BoM, on the other hand, is more like a Python skit stretched out to feature length. (In fact, it actually bears a surprising amount of similarity to the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch if ‘dead’ was replaced by ‘dodo’.) It has good humor, but there’s too much of it, and it never stops. This may simply be personal bias intruding, since I know there are plenty of fans of rapid-fire comedy out there – but this stuff isn’t merely rapid-fire, it’s a full on bombardment. ‘Fusillade comedy’ might be a better term.

Mind you, if the vast majority of these jokes were absolute gut-busters I might be able to just shrug this off – after all, if one out of five had me rolling on the floor, what would I care if the other four were duds? Sadly, though, the movie really isn’t all that funny. It’s humorous, yes, and certainly inspired a few grins, but it didn’t really make me laugh all that much. I chuckled a few times, but that was it.

Also, while this is marketed at kids, I’ve read some ‘saw it in the theater’ reviews that talk about children in the audience seeming kind of bored with the whole thing, with the adults being the ones who were laughing. Now, normally I’d be fine with that – after all, animation isn’t just for kids, and if its fans are in another age group, who cares? – but honestly, I can see where the kids were coming from here. I wasn’t bored by TP!BoM, but there’s really not a lot that actually happens in it. There are a few nice action sequences, and they’re good and well done, but for a movie that’s about, you know, pirates, there’s not all that much piratical stuff going on. You’d expect something that not only has ‘pirates’ in the title but follows it with an exclamation mark to have lots and lots of that sort of thing, right? You know, nautical battles, boarding ships for their loot, swinging from the rigging, all that. And true, there is a little bit of it, but nowhere near as much as I would have liked. There’s some near the beginning and some near the end (and they’re the best parts), but the middle is mainly just people walking around and talking and being silly. It’s just not all that piratical of a pirate movie, and that disappointed me.

Also, would it have killed the screenwriters to give the other Pirate of the Year contestants a little more of a role – or, for that matter, any sort of a role at all? They’re supposed to be these legendary pirate badasses, but all they do is make big entrances and act catty. Perhaps I’m being unrealistic here, but I was kind of expecting characters voiced by big-name actors who featured prominently in the trailers and on the posters to, I don’t know, affect the plot somehow.

Speaking of characters, let’s quickly talk about the main ones – I won’t bother breaking them up into heroes and villains here, since there’s not enough. Let’s start with the Pirate Captain. The Captain is not the world’s most complex role; he needs to be swashbuckling, cheerful, and more than a little bit of a poltroon, and lo and behold, that’s just what he is. I will give Hugh Grant credit, though – A: I never would have guessed it was him; for an actor with a very recognizable sort of voice, he does quite a good job of disguising it, and B: he does manage to invest the character with a real pathos and vulnerability at times. The poor guy just wants a bit of fame and recognition from his peers, and while he clearly doesn’t actually deserve to be Pirate of the Year based on talent – being, you know, not actually possessed of much – you still want him to win, which is a desirable quality in a hero.

As for desirable ones in a villain, Imelda Staunton has most of them in her Queen Victoria. She’s scheming, selfish, impatient, filled with boundless rage, and… and… well, actually not much more than that. In fact, she’s pretty two-dimensional, but then that’s exactly the sort of villain that a movie like this needs. (If there’s one thing that does stand out, it’s her design – her psychotic pop-eyed stare is honestly somewhat disturbing at times.) Frankly, I think more historical figures should be used this way. If, in the next Aardman movie I see, Attila the Hun makes an appearance as the proprietor of a lingerie store, I will be very happy.

As for the rest, well… not much to be said about them. The pirates are… pirate-y, but all they really do is act as cheerleaders for the captain (although the Albino Pirate does get a few good lines). The only one of them who has any real personality is the Pirate With a Scarf/Number Two, who has the ‘sole voice of reason’ thing going on for him – which means, in a film like this, he is destined to be perpetually ignored. David Tennant does a pretty good job as a memorably nerdy Darwin, but he doesn’t have as much of a character arc as I’d hoped – he starts out as a meek, lovelorn scientist, and that’s pretty much how he stays. I was hoping he was going to become a member of the crew, but no luck. Oh well, he’s OK as he is. (Also, I should at least give a brief mention to his monkey servant, Mr. Bobo. He’s… funny, and I couldn’t not mention him, but now that I have, I don’t have much to say about him, so let’s drop it before this gets awkward.)

So, final thoughts? It’s not bad. I’d certainly recommend seeing it if you’re an Aardman fan, or a fan of the books (which I haven’t read, so perhaps that’s another reason why it didn’t quite click for me). I personally am in no hurry to see it again, but it does a good enough job of being a likable romp through crazy pirate-land. I would have liked a bit more crazy pirate stuff, but maybe that’s just me.

Oh, and – arr.

The original stars of the movie, up until the point when they were demoted for extras for demanding an exotic variety of tea.

The original stars of the movie, up until the point when they were demoted to extras for demanding an exotic variety of tea.

Intermission!

  • At one point, the Pirate Captain tells Darwin “your nose is too small for your face”. This is a reference to a real-life incident involving his famous Beagle expedition – the captain of the ship was a believer in physiognomy (the now largely discredited science of determining a person’s character by the shape of their head and face), and he almost refused to take Darwin along because he thought that the shape of his nose indicated laziness.
  • In the US version of the film, there is a running gag about airships being “lady magnets”. In the original dub, they were instead lauded for being good for “looking down women’s dresses” (which makes much more sense in the context of the film).
  • The Pirate with Gout has a Blue Peter badge on his hat. Blue Peter is a British children’s show, currently the longest-running in the world; the badges are awarded to those who make an appearance on it.

Groovy Quotes:

Queen Victoria: I want them sunk, Admiral! Scuppered, smashed – fed to the sharks; d’you hear me? I HATE pirates!

The Pirate Captain: I’ve done some pretty appalling things in my piratical career – like that time I used babies as squid bait, or that other time I thought it would be okay to let a turtle drive the boat…

The Pirate with Gout: We were just discussing what’s the best bit about being a pirate.
The Pirate Captain: Oh you were, were you?
The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens: I suggested it might be the looting…
The Pirate with Gout: Whereas I contend it’s the shiny cutlasses.
The Albino Pirate: And I thought it was the chance to catch exotic diseases!

The Pirate Captain: Come back here, mysterious shadowy figure!

Charles Darwin: I haven’t got any gold!
The Pirate Captain: No gold, eh? Then what, might I ask, is this?
Charles Darwin: It’s a baboon’s kidney.
The Pirate Captain: Is it? Oh. And what about this?
Charles Darwin: It’s, it’s another baboon’s kidney.
(The Pirate with a Scarf and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate enter)
The Pirate with a Scarf: We’ve searched the hold, Captain.
The Pirate Captain: And?
The Pirate with a Scarf: Just… creatures. Bits of creatures in jars.
The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate: And an unhappy-lookin’ baboon.

The Albino Pirate: This can only end brilliantly!

The Pirate Captain: Prepare to be boarded, nerds!

The Pirate with a Scarf: You can’t always just say ‘arr’ at the end of a sentence, and think that makes everything all right.

Charles Darwin: Oh, don’t mind Mr. Bobo. Just an old project of mine.
The Pirate Captain: ‘Project’?
Charles Darwin: Yeah, I had this theory – I thought that if you took a monkey, gave him a monocle and covered up his gigantic unsightly arse, that he would cease to be a monkey and become more of a… well, a ‘Man-Panzee’, if you will.
The Pirate Captain: Bold theory.
The Albino Captain: I don’t like the monkey.

The Pirate Captain: It’s only impossible if you stop to think about it.

The Pirate with a Scarf: Captain, um… d’you remember the little talk we had?
The Pirate Captain: What, the one about whether pigs are actually a type of fruit?
The Pirate with a Scarf: (Long pause) No.

The Albino Pirate: London smells like grandma.

The Pirate Captain: Oh, sweet Neptune’s briny pants.

Queen Victoria: I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and soul of a person who really, really wants that dodo.

The Pirate Captain: Then you’ll be laughing on the other side of your faces – yes! And believe me, that is a very painful thing to do.

Scientist #1: An actual dodo!
Scientist #2: Makes electricity look like a pile of crap!

The Pirate Captain: Ah – Blood Island! So called because it’s the exact shape of some blood.

Peg-Leg Hastings: Lock up your daughters!

The Pirate Captain: …And that is why, in a straight fight, a shark would probably beat a Dracula.

The Pirate with a Scarf: You stole all this from the Tower of London?
The Pirate Captain: That’s right, and then I burnt it to the ground, wrestled a bear – oh, and I kissed a princess for good measure.

Queen Victoria: Do you have a name, pirate captain?
The Pirate Captain: They call me ‘The Pirate Captain’.
Queen Victoria: Well, Pirate Captain…

The Pirate Captain: Hell’s barnacles!

The Albino Pirate: It’s like a meat ballet!

The Pirate Captain: Crackers! Biscuits!

The Pirate Captain: We laugh in the face of danger, remember?
The Pirate with Gout: Um… I don’t.
The Albino Pirate: I don’t really like danger at all.

The Pirate Captain: Now listen, Charles; we’ve all done something unforgivable. I’ve betrayed my pirate honor, you’ve betrayed science, and Mr. Bobo’s betrayed the animal kingdom.

The Pirate Captain: Ahh, sure, some of you are as ugly as a sea cucumber; some of you are closer to being a chair or coat rack than a pirate, and some of you are just fish I’ve dressed up in a hat – but you’re still the best crew a captain could wish for!

The Pirate with a Scarf: Real piracy isn’t about trophies – it’s about fighting up staircases backwards! It’s about sliding down sails with a knife in your teeth! Beard glossiness!

The Pirate Captain: Fire those long things that go bang.

The Pirate with Gout: This is our most unexpectedly heartwarming adventure ever!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
  • Flushed Away
  • Chicken Run
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