Hard to Arrrrrgue with 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Brought to the screen by Aardman Animation, the British stop-motion maestros behind "Wallace & Gromit" and "Chicken Run," "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" is a busy, buzzy bit of fun, loaded with sight gags and wordplay and silly surrealism in lovely 3-D. It also has likable characters, no matter how piratical, and the wide-eyed Aardman style -- chaos composed out of meticulous order, frame by frame -- is always welcome to see. To be honest, I'm not sure if kids will follow the intricacies of the plot of "The Pirates!" -- there's Charles Darwin in the mix, as well as Queen Victoria, with plenty of plot convolutions and exposition along the way -- but, frankly, as the creators of the film didn't seem to worry too much about that, I'm not going to, either. And there's plenty of quick, silly slapstick, along with goofy non sequiturs, crammed in the spaces between the story beats to keep anyone amused.
In 1837, The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) -- which is his name -- sails the seas with a run-down ship, a luxuriant beard, a crew of odd ducks whose biggest weekly excitement is ham night, and an even odder ship's parrot, Polly. Desperate to win the Pirate of the Year Award and facing stiff competition from pirates far more competent than himself, The Pirate Captain goes on a rampage of looting and piracy that does not, in fact, work. But one of the ships is The Beagle, and soon Pirate Captain finds himself face to face with Charles Darwin (David Tennant), the scientist behind our understanding of evolution, who immediately notes that Polly is not a fat, ugly parrot, but, rather, a dodo, thought extinct for over a hundred years.
And so The Pirate Captain and Darwin set out using each other for their own ends, with the former aided by his crew and the latter aided by his chimpanzee manservant, Mr. Bobo. The Pirate With a Scarf (Martin Freeman, in a very Martin Freeman part, if that makes sense) -- again, that's his name -- tries to talk the Pirate Captain out of his madness: "Real piracy isn't about trophies -- it's about sword fighting up stairs backwards!" And gradually, The Pirate Captain learns that true riches are found, yes, among his friends and crew doing what he loves, although it takes some sword fighting with Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) to get to that realization.
Co-directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, "The Pirates!" is full of great animation: Everything from the curly locks of The Pirate Captain's beard to a whale making a decidedly showy entrance or the animated journeys the crew make when traveling, as "The Muppets" put it, by map. The script is by Gideon Defoe, from his own novel "The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists," and the tone of it all is part and parcel of a thread of British absurdity running from Gilbert and Sullivan to P.G. Wodehouse to Monty Python and to the novels of Terry Pratchett. The Pirate Captain is superbly played by Grant -- a big heart, a larger beard, a somewhat smaller brain, like Bertie Wooster at the helm of the Jolly Roger -- and it's excellent work.
Again, I don't know if kids will get all the references in the film -- it feels like it might play better for the 10-and-over set, not the 10-and-under group -- and at the same time can say without much second-guessing that kids may not get all the references, but they will get plenty of the jokes, even throwaway signs and bits of business in the background. Defoe has written several books about his pirates -- excuse me, "The Pirates" -- and based on this fast, funny and family-friendly outing, I'd be very much in favor of seeing where the call of adventure and search for ham takes them next.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.