The problem with being associated continually with excellence is that every misstep is magnified. Still good by others’ standards, it’s really just not up to scratch given the entity’s previous efforts. And that unfortunately is the case with the not especially funny or captivating The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
The latest stop-motion effort from Britain’s Aardman Animations – who previously gave the world Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, as well as the CGI Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas (our review) – The Pirates! Band of Misfits is the studio’s first project that isn’t their own original creation. Instead, it’s based on a series of comedic novels by Gideon Defoe – who also wrote the film’s screenplay.
The Pirates! sticks to what is pretty much an Aardman formula: one character, typically the hero, is a self-important buffoon shepherded to success by his far more competent sidekick. When the buffoon is left to his own devices, things fall apart.
So here, in 1837, we have inept, but luxuriously bearded, The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), who has the love and loyalty of his misfit crew, with names like The Pirate with Gout and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate. The Pirate with a Scarf – who even looks like his voice actor, Martin Freeman – is The Captain’s able second-in-command. The Pirates have their share of adventures, as well as regular Ham Nights, but The Pirate Captain wants more: “professional” recognition by winning the prestigious Pirate of the Year Award.
However, the Captain is a joke in the eyes of his ruthless competitors, Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Peg-Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), and he knows it. So when a chance encounter with naturalist Charles Darwin (David Tennant) reveals the pirates’ “big-boned parrot” mascot, Polly is actually the world’s last dodo, the band head to London. There they set their eyes on a hefty cash reward from the Royal Society of scientists, while trying to avoid the bug-eyed, big booty-ed Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), a vehement pirate hater.
Consistently, the most enjoyable thing about The Pirates! Band of Misfits is its world design and sight gags – which typically take the form of Victorian Era posters. Fortunately the film’s credits allow the viewer to get a closer look at these print advertisements for the likes of “Urchin-Be-Gone”. This said, clever little background jokes, attention to detail and pleasing craftsmanship alone do not a well-rounded movie make.
You see, The Pirates! just doesn’t capitalise on its potential, in pretty much all departments. Maybe it’s because it’s based on existing material, but things feel reined in. Although the film is energised by an 80s “Oi, Oi Oi!” British punk soundtrack, it lacks the multiple, minutely choreographed action set pieces we’ve come to expect of an Aardman production. Your eyes widen at the steampunk setting of the film’s finale, but the expected exhilarating interaction with such an environment never arrives.
Admittedly, The Pirates! Band of Misfits develops more heart as it progresses and The Pirate Captain learns a lesson about life priorities. However, the film lacks engaging or identifiable characters for the audience to rally behind. Arthur Christmas nailed the recognisable dynamic of a dysfunctional family; The Pirates! never attempts anything more than a surface skim of characters. Even the villains are criminally underutilised. Queen Victoria screeches and rages, but she has none of the menace of Chicken Run’s Mrs Tweedy.
For the record, The Pirates! aims its jokes at older audiences – again, largely taking the form of sight gags and absurdism instead of memorable, zinger lines of dialogue. There’s certainly nothing offensive for younger viewers in Band of Misfits, but, having watched the film with a group of children and noted their response, they may not find it very funny. The kiddies at my screening probably enjoyed the movie but they certainly didn’t shriek with delight like they did during the trailer for Leon Schuster’s latest. This said, Darwin’s mute “man-panzee” in The Pirates! is likely to be a fan favourite with young and old, given he can always be relied on for a laugh.
In the end, although pleasant and watchable enough, you can’t shake the disappointment that The Pirates! Band of Misfits never really finds its stride, and never picks up comedic momentum. What could have been a rollicking adventure – genuine cinematic treasure – that sent your heart soaring and put a smile on your face is, finally, nothing special.
Last Updated: April 23, 2012