Stop-motion animation is an artform that only seldom turns up in feature films, so it’s something of a surprise to see three different films made in that medium in 2012 (the others being ParaNorman and Frankenweenie.) Coming out substantially earlier than either of those, and lacking the macabre theme, was The Pirates! Band of Misfits, by Aardman Animations, the company behind Wallace and Gromit. Based on a series of children’s books, The Pirates! features a rag-tag crew of buccaneers whose adventures are held in check only by their sheer incompetence.
The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) has been longing for over twenty years to win the “Pirate of the Year” award. However, his chances seem slim, as the award is mostly determined by who brings in the most booty to the competition, and his more successful and flashy counterparts — voiced by Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven, and Lenny Henry — have already acquired substantial treasures, while he has nothing. If he wants to win, he has to come up with a truly grand scheme to acquire riches.
His dinner plans are pretty much spot on.
The film was released as The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists in its native United Kingdom, and that isn’t the only difference with the U.S. release. The U.S. release also has a couple of the characters voiced by different actors; the Albino Pirate is voiced by Anton Yelchin instead of Russell Tovey, and the Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens is voiced by Al Roker. The reasons for the changes is unclear, but as I have watched only the U.S. version, I cannot say it’s a change for the better or worse; I can say, however, that both do a good job (though Roker’s role is very limited.)
The story takes the form of a loose romp, going from one place to the next as their quest develops. A chance encounter with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) causes the Pirate Captain to seek his fortunes in London, where Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) rules with a pirate-hating iron fist. (The film, of course, takes massive liberties with history — purely for the sake of laughs, of course.) It’s a fun tale, and even has a little bit of depth to it with the Pirate Captain gradually learning what’s really important to him about being a pirate.
Unfortunately, that depth is limited to a few characters. The Pirate Captain and Charles Darwin are well-developed characters, as is “Number Two” (the “Pirate With a Scarf”, voiced by Martin Freeman), and Queen Victoria is about as well developed as any cartoon villain. But the other characters are essentially there as gimmicks and to fill space. They’re fun, don’t me wrong — especially Brian Blessed as the Pirate King — but most of the Pirate Captain’s crew in particular could stand from a little more character development. This is highlighted by the fact that the characters don’t even seem to have names; every member of the crew has a description, and nothing more, ranging from the Pirate With Gout to the Albino Pirate. There is usually little development beyond those descriptions; the characters are, each of them, rather flat.
Even the Surprisingly Curvacious Pirate.
Something that’s going to be highly subjective for people is the humor in the film. This is a film with a very British, very dry sense of humor. It’s not going for the belly laughs very often; it’s more likely to go for the “Hey, wait a minute” moments. I appreciate dry humor, and so I was enjoying this, but it’s an acquired taste and won’t be to everybody’s liking. And rather importantly, as this is a film primarily aimed at children, most children are probably not going to be laughing much. They may enjoy the adventure and will certainly enjoy some of the general silliness, but a lot of the jokes are going to go sailing right over their heads.
Even so, The Pirates! Band of Misfits still has a lot to recommend it. The characters, though mostly nameless, are still entertaining, and the Pirate Captain is a charismatic and sympathetic lead. The animation is some truly great clay animation, flowing smoothly and naturally and it’s always bright and colorful. The film is a lot of fun simply to look at. And the humor, if one is in the right mindset to appreciate it, is fast and frequent, though often subtle.
The film may not be for everyone. But for those who can appreciate a fun, light romp with dry humor, it’s a pretty good movie.