Movie Review: The Pirates! Band of Misfits
By Shalimar Sahota
April 12, 2012

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Some of you may be wondering, “What’s the point of having a pirate film without Johnny Depp?’ Well, you people make me sick.

Mere moments away from having his head chopped off, Queen Victoria asks the bearded one, “Do you have a name Pirate Captain?” He looks at her.
“They call me the Pirate Captain,” he says, raising his eyebrows. You’ll be practicing it in the mirror afterwards, I tell you. I initially saw this scene during a TV commercial, and the marketing team must have known that it would work, because it was enough to propel me out of the house to go and view The Pirates! Band of Misfits. It also establishes how none of the pirates in the Pirate Captain’s crew operate on a first name basis.

Set in 1837, the Pirate Captain (Grant) informs his crew that he ought to be a shoe-in for the annual Pirate of the Year awards. Having failed to win it for the last six years he believes that now ought to be his time. But to beat the competition he’ll have to secure the most booty, which means looting. He storms a ship that unfortunately has no gold, but it does have scientist Charles Darwin (Tennant), who catches a glimpse of the Captain’s parrot Polly. Darwin explains Polly’s true nature and how she could bring them “untold riches.” But it means visiting London, home of the pirate hating Queen Victoria (Staunton).

A co-production with Sony Pictures Animation, the film is clearly Aardman in flavor, and their first stop-motion feature since Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This time there are CG elements mixed with the claymation, but it’s mostly seamless. And the ham during Ham-Nite actually looks edible.

I was surprised to learn that this is actually based on a book by Gideon Defoe, having written a series of stories involving The Pirates. It seems to be such a snug fit, for it just feels distinctly Aardman and less like an adaptation. Defoe scripted the film, so is likely on the same quality frequency as Aardman. I wouldn’t be surprised if they collaborate for a sequel.

So good was the script that Hugh Grant, who voices a cheery Pirate Captain, said that it was Defoe’s work on it that drew him in. Grant himself is not instantly recognizable, having skilfully adapted his voice to fit the character instead, a captain who’s not at all very clever (“fire those long things that go bang”).

The opening minutes firmly establish the hero’s motives and just what kind of film you’ll be watching. As we see the Pirate Captain filling out his application form for Pirate of the Year, fellow pirates arrive to show him up, each one supposedly better than the last. Finally we reach Black Bellamy (Piven), who makes an entrance by whale. Yes. Such is the bizarre nature of this curious world, where fun replaces believability, making way for references to things that should not belong. This is why a ship behaves like a car, why the Pirate Captain dunks a Custard Cream and why we see a scientist trying to decipher a Rubik’s Cube. This could be off-putting to a few, but for many, it ought to raise a smile. Plus, I don’t see how anyone can hate a monkey that uses title cards.

There’s a ton of humorous little details, most of which blend into the background (so how long has the Royal Society been playing God?). On the ship, there are a number of boat rules; the first being, “The Captain is always right.” There is also a beard grooming set on the wall, named “The Complete Beard Set.” Also note the street names that relate to the scene we’re watching (Dodgy Street and Lonely Street). I imagine that there will be plenty to spot on a second viewing. Without going all spoilerific, for me the funniest scenes involve elevator music, and Queen Victoria’s actions following this.

The film’s swift pace means that it rarely lingers. Apart from a few moments of conversation between the Pirate Captain and his right-hand Pirate With Scarf (Freeman), it’s kinda like rushed vaudeville, trying to cram as much as possible inside 90 minutes. For example, there’s a moment where Queen Victoria discovers that the Pirate Captain is a pirate. Within a matter of seconds she has his head on a block, ready to be beheaded, and a curtain is unveiled to reveal an executioner, surprisingly with axe already in hand. Also, with such a quirky crew, the film doesn’t get to spend as much time one would like with all of them.

While it’s great to hear of adults enjoying films tailored towards children, we seldom hear the views of the children themselves, probably because we’ve been led to believe that they don’t know what they’re talking about (oh dear). As usual, parents have to contend with having to read the reviews, half of which come from old guys suffering from erectile dysfunction, while the other half are written by idiots like me that don’t even know how to sentence a structure. Kids don’t read reviews, because they’re too busy playing Call of Duty (however, if you dear reader are under ten, then… well… I guess it’s great to be able to reach out to that kind of demographic).

I’m only a child around once a month, so while I enjoyed The Pirates!, I will note that the audience I saw it with mainly consisted of families with children largely under ten, and most of the laughter came from the adults. Everyone gets sight gags, but some of the more subtle humour, such as a humorous reference to the Elephant Man, will be completely lost on children. One girl sat on the same row as me was asking a few questions to her parents about the characters. An hour later, she told them that she wanted to go home (they stayed because the parents were enjoying it). However, this is just one screening, and some of you parents may actually show David Lynch films to your kids (I mean, who doesn’t? Oh… wait a minute… oh no).

The film may skewer towards the slightly older, and could even be considered an acquired taste for some youngsters, but there’s enough fun in there for everyone. Overall it’s wonderfully entertaining. If anything, The Pirates! Band of Misfits teaches us about doing the right thing, something the Pirate Captain amazingly fails to do, but he sets about righting his wrongs. In the process we learn how lonely people could turn out to be killers, and that being a pirate is about beard glossiness; important stuff for all really.

Directed by – Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt
Written by – Gideon Defoe (based on his book)
Starring – Hugh Grant (Pirate Captain), David Tennant (Charles Darwin), Imelda Staunton (Queen Victoria), Martin Freeman (Pirate With Scarf), Ashley Jensen (Curvaceous Pirate), Brendan Gleeson (Pirate with Gout), Russell Tovey (Albino Pirate), Lenny Henry (Peg-Leg Hastings), Salma Hayek (Cutlass Liz), Jeremy Piven (Black Bellamy)
Length – 88 minutes
Cert – U / PG