Aardman Animations’ fifth feature film tells the story of blissfully inept Pirate Captain, a (ahem) pirate captain and his attempt to win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. He’s got some stiff competition and has to pull out all the stops in order to even catch up. The film is based on the first two books (The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! in an Adventure with Whaling) in a series by Gideon Defoe. The books are full of cheeky humor and ridiculous events, which sounds like the perfect fit for Aardman Animations, whose previous works include Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep and Creature Comforts. But was this film successful at entertaining adults and kids alike?
I have to admit, I’ve always been a fan of the style and quality of claymation in Aardman Animations projects, but other than that they’ve never really appealed to me. Perhaps it’s the humor, perhaps it’s the stories; I’ve never been too interested in quantifying my ambivalence. So when I first saw the previews for Pirates! I was once again torn. The animation looked great and the idea sounded funny and intriguing. I’m also a casual fan of the series that its based on, so it seemed like I was in for a good time. And because it is a movie for kids, I decided to borrow some kids so I could get both perspectives. I took Serena, age 8, and Alex, age 4. They were riveted when they first sat down, but who wouldn’t be seeing the Aardman clay creations come to life?
As stated earlier, Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) is seeking the title of Pirate of the Year. His biggest competition comes in the form of two other competing pirates: Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and they have a head-start on booty (monetary and bodily). In a humorous series of wrong-ship-wrong-time mishaps, we get a real sense for Pirate Captain’s ineffectualness. Unfortunately, these jokes were revealed in the trailer, so some of the laughter had already been spent. Eventually they come across the Beagle and its inhabitant Charles Darwin, who points out that Pirate Captain’s beloved parrot Polly is actually the last living dodo. Darwin convinces Captain that he needs to enter a science competition in London with the dodo in order to win countless riches and make him a shoo-in for Pirate of the Year.
The pirates and Charles arrive in London to find that Queen Victoria hates pirates, so they must carry on with their business while disguised. There are some funny moments as the pirates use their ridiculous disguises to get around town, but it is during this part of the film that things start to go drastically downhill. We meet Darwin’s man-panzee servant Mr. Bobo, who elicits some laughs with his speech cards, though they quickly become repetitive and overdone. We also learn that Darwin has nefarious plans to hand Polly over to the Queen, who he is in love with. At this time in the movie, Alex leaned over to me and exclaimed, “This movie is boooooooring.” He was so right. The whole setup of Darwin’s obsession with the Queen and any scene related to it was lackluster and couldn’t keep even my attention; it was very difficult to get back into the movie and reinvest my interest.
It’s hard not to compare any animated film these days to the brilliance of Pixar. One of the things that Pixar does so well is it entertains adults while not going over the heads of children or giving up their attention. I tried to figure out why Pirates! didn’t succeed, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I laughed at quite a few jokes, along with other people in the theatre. There were times when the adults laughed first and then children piped in because they thought they were expected to, and there were times when children were the only ones laughing. But it was superficial laughter. It wasn’t the kind of humor that makes you laugh and warms your heart, and there were no jokes that resulted in uproarious outbursts. Honestly, the trailer did a great job of setting up exactly the kind of humor to expect. My problem is the film just didn’t go beyond that. See what I’m saying:
The one thing I did find incredible (though not surprisingly) was the scenery. Technology has advanced enough that computer graphics are used to enhance the depth of the claymation, and it is amazing what the combination can achieve. There was so much detail in the background of every scene, which was one good thing for both adults and children to enjoy. The problem is that depth didn’t translate into the story, the characters, the dialogue, or anything else, so the film as a whole fell short. Aside from the look of the film, the only other interesting thing was some controversy surrounding a scene revealed in one of the trailers.
In the trailer (you can see it above), there’s a scene where Pirate Captain and his crew land on a boat to find that it has no gold, it’s a leper boat, as evidenced when an arm falls off a crew member. This idea of portraying the illness in a negative or derogatory manner offended a few groups, including the World Health Organization, and they promptly asked for the scene to be removed. Aardman Animations conceded out of respect and changed it to a “plague” boat. Thank goodness there are no plague community outreach groups.
I keep going back-and-forth on what to rate this film because it wasn’t terrible, and it definitely wasn’t great. There were moments (though not as many as I had expected/hoped for), and the claymation and scenery were great. Yet I’ll never have a desire to re-watch this movie. I wouldn’t put it on if I was babysitting kids of any age, and I wouldn’t recommend it for adults. Serena thought it was okay, and it was clear that Alex didn’t care for it (“Is this going to be like all the Pirates of the Caribbean?” No kiddo, I’m sorry). With that, I suppose I’m being generous by giving The Pirates! Band of Misfits 2.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls. I know this film has been getting quite a bit of positive review, so I’d love to know your thoughts! Tell Nerdlocker what you liked/didn’t like about the movie in the comments below!