The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

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It's not very often I get a movie that comes along with an exclamation point in its title. The Pirates! Band of Misfits  is about halfway there. They're excited about pirates (!), but not the band of misfits. But, in a shocking twist, the pirates (!) are the band of misfits. I should be excited; instead I'm needlessly confused.

But, then again, that's almost a constant anyway. However, I'm willingly to let bygones be bygones when it comes to animated family movies the director of Chicken Run (Peter Lord) and the men behind the "Wallace and Gromit" franchise since their track record is pretty fantastic.

Based on a children's book series, The Pirates! Band of Misfits concerns a pirate captain aptly named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who counts among his crew Number Two (Martin Freeman), Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Surprisingly Curvacious Pirate (Ashley Jensen), and The Pirate who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker-- yes). They're one of those amiably daffy lots of pirates who get more of a kick out of Ham Night than any of the looting or plundering options that are currently available.

However, Pirate Captain is of an egotistical lot, so when the annual Pirate of the Year competition once again comes around, he enters to meet his own humiliation as all of the other pirates have robbed, murdered, and roamed the seas to their hearts content. Dejected, Pirate Captain vows to bring back a reason for him to win the competition.

Why, who do we have here but good ol' Charlie Darwin? ... wait, what?

Now here's where the film gets a bit hairy. Or, well, feathery. During one attempt to rob a vessel, Pirate Captain encounters Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who informs him that his 'parrot' Polly is actually a Dodo bird, which is widely considered extinct. Once Pirate Captain hears that there's a chance he could win Scientist of the Year Award just for presenting it in London, he sets off, even though it's well known that Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) has a violent and passionate hatred of the plunderers of the high seas.

Between all of the plots and characters, the film has a lot of balls to juggle, and a number of them seem to get lost in the confusion. The half-titular "Band of Misfits" spend most of the movie in the backseat as the film becomes, and by God I never thought in my life I would right this, Charles Darwin and His Quest to Get Laid. Darwin and his monkey butler want to steal the Dodo and present it to the science society in order for Chuck to side up to Queen Victoria and waggle his fuzzy eyebrows a bit.

Anyone who gets offended at the idea of Charles Darwin will probably find this movie objectionable, even if, at best, he's portrayed a comically silly rube. The film goes out of its way to imply that his ideas on evolution may have derived from the Pirate Captain's, which would almost be insulting if it weren't so lame.

Opportunities come and go, and eventually we end up with Queen Victoria in possession of Polly so that she may have it for dinner, and the Pirate Captain, after trading his bird in for reward money, ends up being shunned by science, pirating, his crew, and even mother nature as it dramatically rains upon him. Will he regain his friend's trust? Will Queen Victoria and a gaggle of world leaders ranging from Napoleon to Uncle Sam feast upon Polly? And will Charles Darwin finally get to make out (!) with a pretty lady, and possible figure out that whole Theory of Evolution thing while he's at it?

Queen Victoria goes rogue (!). And rogue (!).

The problems with Pirates are many. In case you didn't notice in my six (!) paragraph summary of the film, there's a lot going on, and while the film keeps light on its feet, the result is that it becomes so overladen with plot that most of the characters disappear. The usual British humor that consists of physical comedy, cross dressing, and monarchs gone wild is evident here, but it seems more choppy, broken up into bits between the grinding gears of interminable plotting. You may get a great deal of chuckles, but the film never manages to string it together as well as you hope, leaving the whole experience rather hollow.

The British have a long history of taking aim at their monarchy with satire, and the portrayal of Queen Victoria here is a piece of work. Obsessed with controlling the seas, she's also a consummate seductress to Mr. Darwin and, considering the size of her royal vessel and skills with ninja swords, a supervillianness for the Age of Empires.

However, in making the royal crown the enemy of the film, it gives The Pirates! (!) a rather curious undercurrent of self loathing. With the age of colonialism still only a handful of generations behind them, every Brit I've talked to and British film I've seen in the last three decades have indicated a sense of cultural stagnation, a country coming to grips with its own looming irrelevance. (Don't take offense, Brits, the U.S. is starting to feel the same way too!)

That gives the entire enterprise the whiff of-- how do I put it?-- coddling, condescending reassurance. "We were once mighty, but we were mad," the film explains. "It's better to be quirky and weird and eat lots of ham."

And fish in hats and monkey cheese purple dishwasher (!).

Kids get this kind of moral all the time-- be as crazy as you want to be as long as you don't oppose the status quo or at least implement a marginally improved one!-- but the unpleasant truth that the film seems to assure kids that winning isn't everything, and trying to win is even more foolhardy. I'm not a super uber-competitive macho man myself (!), but I can't help but think that if you bombard kids with low expectations they probably won't develop anything more complex on their own.

The film's aforementioned title also alludes to another issue of the picture in that it never escapes the feeling that you're watching a screenplay still in its second draft. The character's cheeky names always feel like an idea a half too clever, and the plot never really ties together in a meaningful way-- I, for one, was deeply disappointed in how little ham played into the film's climax.

That being said, it's got some pretty great irreverent humor, though it is moderately risque for children's entertainment and not something I would show an impressionable daughter. All of it is done in Aardman's gorgeous claymation techniques, and the opportunity to create a globe-spanning epic gives them ample opportunities to let their imagination run wild.

However, in all of that excitement (!), I can't help but feel that The Pirates! Band of Misfits ended up being much less than it could have been. While no minor classic like Flushed Away or Chicken Run, it instead sits in the camp with the Wallace and Gromit film: a pleasant time but earnestly forgettable. Which is probably for the best (!).

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Posted by Danny

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  1. Definitely has its moments where it was funny and witty, but other times, it just felt a bit tired and unoriginal with its joke. That whole monkey character that would talk through cue-cards, seemed like something I would see in Looney Tunes. Good review Danny.

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