The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)
written by: Gideon Defoe
produced by: Julie Lockhart, Peter Lord, Carla Shelley & David Sproxton
directed by: Peter Lord
rating: PG for mild action, rude humor and some language
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: April 27, 2012
After providing us with the delightful CGI animated holiday feature, “Arthur Christmas“, the British studio Aardman Animations returns to the wonderful stop-motion style they’re known for. Based on the popular Pirates! book series written by British author Gideon Defoe, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (released elsewhere as “The Pirates! In an Adventure of Scientists”, because Americans supposedly prefer Misfits) is a return to the rollicking swashbuckling and treasure-seeking nature of the pirate movie genre. While Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies have relied more on supernatural elements and action/adventure set-ups, “Band of Misfits” embraces jolly humor and bumbling mischief with the same visual creativity and wit to the Oscar-winning studio’s lovable “Wallace and Gromit” characters. Although the storyline might be a challenge for kids to follow, there’s still plenty for all ages to enjoy here – especially for those who already enjoy Aardman’s previous plasticine work.
Sailing the seven seas in a rickety old ship, a loyal crew of ragtag pirates (aka Misfits) led by an inept captain known only as Pirate Captain (superbly voiced by an unidentifiable Hugh Grant) in the year 1837. On the verge of becoming obsolete and insignificant, the insecure Pirate Captain searches for significant booty to boost his reputation among fellow pirates. He sets his sails on The Pirate of the Year competition, in which the winner will be the pirate who with the most fortune in his possession. Convinced the esteemed award will be just the thing to earn some notoriety, Pirate Captain and his crew will have to beat out competitors like Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven, in a non-role) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek, playing another sassy/sultry Latina), in order to gain the fame he seeks. The crew embark on a search for the perfect ship for them to plunder, but come up empty-handed at every turn.
Everything changes once Pirate Captain and his crew board a ship called HMS Beagle where they apprehend Charles Darwin (David Tennant), an English naturalist, and his trained chimpanzee, Mr. Bobo. Darwin is more concerned though with the crew’s beloved parrot Polly than his capture, which (unbeknownst to the crew) is actually a rare dodo bird. At Darwin’s persuasion, Pirate Captain sets a course his for England, in order to enter the bird into the Scientist of the Year competition at the Royal Academy of London with the promise of a valuable prize. Upon arriving, Pirate Captain finds himself having to deal with a two-faced Darwin and a price on his head placed on him by a pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who will stop and nothing to see him and his crew destroyed.
To keep his head and save Polly, Pirate Captain must put aside his delusions of grandeur and pull his motley crew together and escape to the high seas, away from crazed royalty.
Co-directed by Aardman co-founder Peter Lord (“Chicken Run”) and animator Jeff Newett, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is a visually detailed jaunt that has more going on in each frame that most animated features. The artistry alone is breathtaking, from the rolling white caps of ocean waves to the squiggly curls in Pirate Captain’s beard. The character designs throughout are quite amusing and clever, but as much as the lively animation is gorgeous it’s really the tart screenplay (also written by Gideon Defoe) that makes the fifth Aardman feature such a hoot.
It also helps that the script is brought to life by such a fine ensemble of actors, who manage to completely lose themselves in the material. Just look at the names of the crew and try not to laugh: The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin) and my favorite, The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (weatherman Al Roker). The humor in those characters is sly and ever-present throughout the film, but that’s all due to the talented cast. The great Brian Blessed also makes an appearance with his booming baritone as The Pirate King, the emcee of the “Pirate of the Year” competition.
But the success of the film falls on Grant’s uncanny work in the lead role. Word has it that Grant initially declined the role, claiming retirement or not thinking he was right for the role (one of those two) – which are both crazy reasons. I’ll bet that upon closer look, he saw the role’s potential for sheer fun. The opportunity to disappear into the bumbling, yet action-savvy, Pirate Captain was probably too hard to pass up. Tennant is also clearly having a good time, playing a cagey Darwin who conveys an anxious degree of mistrust and villainy. The best part of the performances is that all of the actors are unrecognizable (especially Grant), which allows viewers to connect with the characters, not who’s playing them.
I approached “Band of Misfits” with some trepidation, mainly because I had grown tired of the trailer that had played in endless rotation for months to the tune of Quiet Riot’s “Come on, Feel the Noise”, of all things. Thankfully that tune didn’t make it in the film, but instead we have “London Calling” from The Clash (quite fitting) and “You Can Get It If You Really Want It” by Jimmy Cliff (tolerable). While there are a few formulaic beats that slightly snag the story, the lighthearted fun is undeniable and the fast-paced action is quite infectious.