First, for international readers—yes, this is The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, re-titled for the USA (a few voices were apparently also replaced). The original title comes from one of the source novels by Gideon Defoe, but was apparently deemed too twee for Yank audiences. Band of Misfits was sufficiently vague and “funny” to pass muster with the marketing braintrust, apparently.
The Pirates! is an Aardman production, best-known for the Wallace and Gromit series (and Chicken Run, and last year’s Arthur Christmas—which somehow made $46 million in the USA despite what appeared to me to be minimal marketing—and “Shaun the Sheep,” etc., etc.). I’m a huge fan of Wallace and Gromit, and the cast of The Pirates! shares the same tombstone-toothed, googly-eyed gormless design and attitude…which is good. There is some stunt voice-casting (Jeremy Piven? Salma Hayek? Lenny Henry? Meh…) but these are all subsidiary roles and to be fair the actors play it straight. The main voices are supplied by Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Martin Freeman, and Imelda Staunton, and the important thing is that none of the characters even vaguely resembles the voice actor playing the role (for instance, Martin Freeman’s character, Number Two aka the Pirate with a Scarf, looks like a little like Screech from “Saved by the Bell”). This suggests the filmmakers were more interested in creating actual characters rather than taking the lazy way out and merely making animated caricatures of celebrities.
The Pirates! tells the story of the boastful, good-natured, nicely-bearded Pirate Captain and his similarly descriptively-named crew (the Pirate with a Scarf, the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, the Pirate with Gout, the Albino Pirate, etc.), and the Captain’s quest to win the prestigious Pirate of the Year award. A chance encounter with Charles Darwin—who covets the Pirate Captain’s pet dodo bird—takes the crew to London, where they run afoul of pirate-hating Queen Victoria.
The Pirates! runs well under 90 minutes, and even though it was adapted from two novels, doesn’t seem unduly rushed or episodic. The set-up is long and carefully planned, the London sections are solidly crafted, and the big action climax is amusing and effective. There’s no padding and no true slow spots. There are countless quirky little bits of humour— some so understated as to be practically invisible—clever sight gags, slapstick, anachronisms, and consistently amusing characterisations.
The chief problem with the film is that—despite the aforementioned dollops of eccentric humour, like “Ham Nite!” and a guest appearance by the Elephant Man—it feels almost too smooth and bowdlerised. While adults can certainly enjoy it (this adult did, although my tastes aren’t too mature, haha), The Pirates! seems pitched at a wider and more youthful audience than, say, Wallace and Gromit. I don’t know, I could be wrong, perhaps W&G is wildly popular with children, but those films seem to have—if not an edge, exactly—at least a slightly more sophisticated level of humour than The Pirates! I don’t like to characterise this as a flaw, because the movie is still pleasant enough, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was watching a film that had been carefully crafted to appeal to a lower common denominator (and reading about a last-minute change to eliminate a leprosy joke did nothing to reassure me: I understand political correctness and the wish to not offend anyone, ever, but it’s symptomatic of how essentially harmless the movie is). But harmless doesn’t mean charmless, and The Pirates! is certainly charming.
Aardman returned to their trademark clay animation with The Pirates! after switching to computer animation in recent years (although the clay animation is “supplemented” with computer work, and there is even some clever “drawn” animation—or computer animation made to look like traditional drawn animation—of nautical charts). The look of the film is splendid, with lavish and intricate designs, although the 3-D process means there are far too many scenes of things rushing at and being thrust towards the camera (surprisingly, although there is a flying scene—an unwritten requirement for all 3-D films—it’s rather truncated). The music score is curious—while it features anachronistic pop songs (for all of the dialogue references to sea shanties, we don’t hear any of those), the music chosen (The Clash, The Pogues, etc.) is likely to be unknown to the youthful component of the film’s audience. Heck, at least it’s not Justin Beiber or hip-hop or dubstep…
Mild fun overall, with a few inspired sections that rise to a higher level of humour, The Pirates! can’t compare with the best of Wallace & Gromit, but it’s far from a wash-out.