Review: The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

The Pirates! Band of Misfits is essentially the British version of the American pictures of Dreamworks Animations. It is filled with slapstick humour, popculture references and celebrity voices. The saving grace is that it’s British, which means it’s more subtle, more intelligent, and ultimately better than most of Dreamworks’ products.

Aardman Animation is the British animation house responsible for the delightful Wallace & Gromit shorts and Chicken Run. While The Pirates! falls short of those previous gems, it is still an entertaining 88 minutes. Based off a series of humourous storybooks by Gideon Defoe, the plot follows an outlandish crew of loser pirates and their captain, aptly named the Pirate Captain, as they try to win the Pirate of the Year Award. The award is given to the pirate who can acquire the most booty in a given year.

Since the Pirate Captain and his crew prove incompetent in the whole pirating business, winning the award seems a lost cause. That is, until they realize that their beloved parrot Polly is actually the last dodo bird in existence, and enter a science competition in London in an effort to raise the necessary cash and pass it off as plundered treasure.

The plot is nonsensical and moves at a furious pace. Hugh Grant voices the Pirate Captain, again showing that if he’s given the right role, he is a delightful combination of cocky blowhard and lovable buffoon. The crew is voiced by a variety of minor celebrities like Martin Freeman, Anton Yelchin, and Brendan Gleeson, who do the best with their limited parts. The best aspects of the crew are their inventively literal non-names: the Pirate with a Scarf, the Pirate with Gout, the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate. Rival pirate captains offer opportunity for cameos by the likes of Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven, which are a tad distracting, but minor nonetheless.

The films villains are none other than Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria (voiced by David Tennant and Imelda Staunton) showing that the filmmakers have no problem playing lowbrow with such titans of British history. Darwin in particular is the butt of most of the film’s jokes, portrayed as a conniving loser who merely wants to impress women with his scientific discoveries.

The film also has a running gag regarding a helper monkey Darwin has trained to be his butler and who uses cue cards to speak to people. While the joke is funny at first, as the film moves on it wears thin. The over-prevalence of the monkey makes it seem as if the filmmakers were assuming that the monkey would become the film’s icon, and thus tried to pack in as much of him as possible.

The Pirates! greatest strength is its animation. Aardman are masters of claymation and the meticulous detail of everything from the pirates’ ship to Darwin’s home in London to a secret pirate getaway called Blood Island is impressive. Stop-motion animation has a charm to it that digital animation cannot match. It also lends itself better to 3D, as the added dimension creates an intense sense of depth that plays well of the depth of the minuscule stop-motion sets.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits is not Aardman’s finest outing, but it is a pleasant, funny, and inventive little comedy that shows a level of commitment to artistry in the service of lowbrow humour that most American animated films lack.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Directed by Phil Lord; written by Gideon Defoe based off his book The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists; starring the voice talent of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Lenny Henry, Brendan Gleeson, Anton Yelchin, Brian Blessed, Ashley Jensen, Jeremy Piven, and Salma Hayek.

6 out of 10