‘Pirates!’ treasure lacks one jewel only
Historical and hysterical: The Pirate Captain, Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”
Updated: May 8, 2012 1:38PM
THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS
★ ★ ★ 1/2
“It’s only impossible if you stop to think about it.”
That bit of visionary philosophy is only one of the numerous gems in this highly entertaining, claymation-animated, family-comedy adventure (well, if your definition of family-comedy expands to include a vision of Queen Victoria as an evil, samurai sword-wielding semi-psychotic) from the extremely talented folks at Aardman Animations, who brought you “Chicken Run” and the assorted adventures of Wallace & Gromit. Which suffers only by comparison to those earlier, classic works, which benefited from the co-directorial input of resident genius Nick Park — he and Aardman founder Peter Lord having elected to develop subsequent projects individually.
Lord co-directed “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (from a screenplay by Gideon Defoe based on his children’s book “Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists”) with Aardman animator Jeff Newitt and he does a very nice job, turning in a clever and competent comic adventure that’s intelligent, frequently funny and far more satisfying on all levels than standard-issue animated fare. The only thing lacking is that indefinable something extra that can only be supplied by inspiration — missing here, we can only suppose, because Park didn’t provide it, or the Park/Lord collaboration didn’t generate it.
That fine distinction may be worth noting for Aardman enthusiasts, but all others are strongly encouraged to grab their kids and race out to see “Pirates!,” which not only features the first performance in several years from Hugh Grant (providing the voice of the hapless Pirate Captain), but exposes Charles Darwin as a treacherous rapscallion motivated by a desire to meet chicks.
If you’re a middle-school teacher, don’t get your hopes up about the educational potential of “Pirates!,” which tosses Queen Victoria and Jane Austen and the Elephant Man into the plot blender together, even though they existed in London decades apart. And which basically reduces pirate lore to an annual Academy Awards-like pirate of the year competition. Which is typically won, by the way, by the intensely obnoxious Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) or the intensely sexy (and deadly) Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek).
For the past 20 years or so, it’s been an honor just to be nominated for the inept and almost embarrassingly likable Pirate Captain, whose lack of professional success (the award for his capture is “12 doubloons plus a free pen”) is counter-balanced by the affection of his equally unthreatening crew (including “the pirate with gout,” “the surprisingly curvaceous pirate” and “the pirate who likes kittens and sunsets”). After being humiliated on Blood Island by his rivals, our anti-hero determines to win this year’s cutlass through the skull award no matter what it takes, though he is at first stymied by his usual bad luck with plundering — boarding first a plague ship, then a ghost ship, then a floating nudist colony. All seems lost when he boards “Chuck” Darwin’s HMS Beagle (and learns the only golden things on board are baboon kidneys), until Darwin realizes the Captain’s beloved “big-boned” parrot is in fact an extinct dodo bird — and promises untold wealth and fame if the captain will take them to London to compete for the scientific discovery of the year award.
Much silliness ensues (one of the chief pleasures of “Pirates!” is its great wealth of sight gags, the best of them provided by Darwin’s comic-relief “man-panzee” monkey manservant) until a timeless moral lesson about the value of true friendship, as opposed to tacky trophies, for instance, is learned by the Captain.
Fortunately, things don’t get too morally improving for too long. We are talking about pirates, here, after all.