When I was twelve-years-old, my parents bought me LEGO Studios as a Christmas gift. It was probably the best gift I’ve ever received, because it sparked my imagination and served as an introduction into the world of filmmaking and animation. With it, I could create stop-motion animation movies with my LEGO characters, or anything else I saw fit (including cats and staplers). Even though most of my movies centered on people being eaten/crushed by dinosaurs/staplers/killer toilets etc., the experience of making a stop-motion movie truly made me appreciate just how painstaking the process can be. Watching films like A Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, Chicken Run, and even the classic Wallace & Gromitt shorts enhanced my appreciation for the craft and for the overall film. This appreciation for the craft also helped me in watching The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the film by Aardman Animation (makers of Wallace & Gromitt), because most of the film fell flat.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits follows a pirate captain known as The Pirate Captain and his crew of, well, misfits. The Pirate Captain isn’t really much of a pirate, as his plundering escapades usually end up in disappointment (“This is a plague ship!”) or humiliation (“This is a ghost ship!”). Yet still, he has his sights on the most coveted prize of all: The Pirate of the Year Award, handed out to the most daring pirate. The first fifteen minutes or so introduces us to a rich world of colourful characters that I wanted to see more of. I mean, really, how many pirates can make an entrance by crashing a whale into a tavern and walking out on its red-carpet tongue with gold coins spilling everywhere. It’s exactly the over-the-top madness I was hoping for.
Unfortunately, the plot is about a dodo. What works as a great running gag (which Aardman Animation is so good at) stretches out into a thin, tired plot wherein Charles Darwin is trying to steal the bird to impress Queen Victoria, the ruthless pirate-hating monarch. The plot becomes quickly tiresome, and it’s a shame too, because after such a great opener (which is the focus of every trailer for the film), the plot weighs the movie down like an anchor. The sharp Aardman humour is there, with some great anachronisms thrown in for good measure (like a back-up beep when a ship reverses into port). There are also some truly great and humorous characters on display here, from Cutlass Liz to the Pirate King and even members of The Pirate Captain’s crew (such as Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate); it’s just the plot doesn’t want anything to do with them.
Despite this, the voice acting is all top-notch, and for the first time in a long while I was actually surprised when I saw the cast names in the credits. Special mention goes to Hugh Grant, who would be the last person I’d cast as a Pirate anything, but he pulls off The Pirate Captain with equal parts rogue, charmer, and buffoon. And I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the animation. This is Aardman’s first film to use both CGI and stop-motion and the effect is seamless. In terms of scope, this is Aardman’s biggest film yet, with some gorgeous ocean vistas and bustling, lively towns. Characters move much smoother than they did in Wallace & Grommit: Curse of the Were-rabbit and don’t have any of the stop-motion jitters that sometimes pop up in claymation movies. However, impressive animation does not a movie make.
By no means a bad movie, The Pirates! falls short of living up to the high-sailing, swashbuckling adventure that it could have been by being hampered by a tired plot.
If you’re looking for more piratey humour, dip your toes into some retro waters with the Monkey Island game series. You can get the remastered versions of the first two games on Steam for $10 each, or get them bundled together for $15. The games are also available on XBox 360, PS3, and iPhone, so you have no excuse. The best in the series, The Curse of Monkey Island, isn’t available yet, but if you get a copy of the disc you can run it on a newer computer with ScummVM. Trust me, it’s well worth the investment.
“Look, a three-headed monkey!”