Aardman Animations is like a less successful Pixar or Studio Ghibli. Like those two (at least until Pixar’s Cars 2), Aardman Animations has never released a bad film, but they generally aren’t as magical, wondrous or humorous as those studios’. Granted, they’ve only put out five movies to date, so the best may be yet to come, but they simply aren’t on the same level as those powerhouses. Their latest stop motion animation effort, The Pirates! Band of Misfits has more chuckles than outright laughs and more sight gags than a silent film, but it’s charming, clever and amusing, even if it seems tired at a mere 88 minutes.
The movie begins in London in 1837. The English Navy, as reported to Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton), rules almost all of the oceans surrounding them, except for a small pirate controlled area in the West Indies. It’s an area that has more peg legs than actual people, where pirates convene to take part in the Pirate of the Year awards, presented by the Pirate King himself (voiced by Brian Blessed). One such pirate known only as the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) has entered the contest and lost every year for the last 20 some odd years, but this year, he intends to nab the grand prize. This means gathering the largest amount of gold he can. After some unsuccessful looting attempts, he and his crew run into a ship guided by Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant). It’s at this unlikely moment that the Pirate Captain learns that his pet dodo (which he thought was a parrot) is very rare and worth a lot of money. If he follows Darwin, he’s guaranteed untold riches, so with his eyes on the Pirate of the Year prize, he sets off to claim his bounty.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is goofy, affable, fun and funny. It’s sporadic in all of those traits, but when it works, it’s something to behold. Clever spoken jokes followed by hilarious sight gags (like when the Pirate Captain hangs a hammock over an actual bed simply because he’s used to it) followed by inventive action scenes give the film a feeling of ingenuity, like some thought and care went into its production. Unfortunately, it’s also those moments that shed light on how weak other sections of the movie are. After some genuine moments of delight, it hits lulls, almost like a heart monitor with a constant stream of peaks and valleys. You’ll be laughing one moment and staring cold at the screen the next, but as far as its comedic prowess goes, The Pirates! Band of Misfits hits more than it misses.
Much of that is due to the approach the film takes to a group of people who are usually seen as ruthless and barbaric. Pirates both old and new are known for their indiscriminate violence against anyone they come across on the high seas, but the pirates in this movie are more or less kind, even when they’re forcing someone to walk the plank, and they come with real heart. The simple story about winning that award, which at first seems so trivial, is merely a tool to teach a valuable lesson to both the characters and the audience. It shows the unimportance of money and the true value of friends and family. It’s not a revelatory message, to be sure, but it’s one that is nevertheless worth hearing and certainly good for the young ones in the audience.
Where The Pirates! Band of Misfits suffers most is in its villainous portrayal of Charles Darwin and its casual, cynical approach to scientists “playing God,” (as cited in the Royal Society’s motto). Given the rampant ignorance many choose to embrace when confronting science, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory in particular, these choices seem dangerous. Then again, the film is so wacky that these issues are hardly issues at all and will most likely be overshadowed by the movie’s actual intent: to entertain. This isn’t a movie with an agenda (despite its flaccid stance on science and Darwin) and most people won’t see it as such. It’s a step up from Aardman Animations’ last film, Arthur Christmas, but it’s not the hit they need and are surely looking for. It’s simply good natured fun that the whole family can enjoy.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits receives 3.5/5