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The Pirates! Band of Misfits

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


Arthur Christmas

When was the last time we saw a Christmas movie that became an instant classic and promised to be essential viewing during the holiday season? Love Actually? If so, it’s been a good eight years. If you ask me, though, you’d have to go all the way back to 1983’s A Christmas Story. Not since then has there been a Christmas movie so good, a year just seemed too long to wait for an appropriate time to watch it again. Based on what I’ve just seen with the pleasant, but all around mediocre Arthur Christmas, I don’t expect that to change.

The film follows the son of Santa Claus named Arthur Christmas (shouldn’t his last name be Claus?), voiced by James McAvoy. He works at the North Pole as the letter writer, answering the millions of letters Santa receives every year. He loves Christmas and revels in the joy it brings children the world over. This year, however, a child has been forgotten. A single young girl named Gwen is not going to be getting anything from Santa, though not if Arthur has anything to say about it. Determined to get that little girl her gift, he hops on the sleigh with his old, crazy grandfather (annoyingly referred to as “Grandsanta”), voiced by Bill Nighy, and sets out to make things right.

Arthur Christmas is not a game changer—few will argue it is—but it’s not easy to criticize. It has its heart in the right place and promises to be an enchanting view for the young tykes in the audience. In the film, Santa is as real as the air we breathe. There isn’t any doubt about his existence and nobody questions it. It’s fact. It’s like the movie exists within the head of a young child who struggles to stay up every year so they can catch a glimpse of the jolly fat man, always to no avail. The magic of the holiday is cherished and, at the very least, the film will allow the older folks to remember what it felt like when they woke up on Christmas morning and saw Santa’s gifts resting under the tree.

The problem is that the film just isn’t very funny, but it’s not particularly unfunny either. It rests in that strange middle ground (as so many British comedies do) where you can acknowledge its cleverness, but your amusement never evolves beyond a grin. The voice acting is splendid and the holiday-centric plays on words are fun for a bit, but there needed to be something more. The aforementioned magic never transcends the inherent magic of the holiday; the film itself is rather bland.

Nevertheless, the characters are likable, even when they’re not exactly living up the spirit of the holiday they help create. Arthur, in particular, is selfless and loving. When he embarks on his adventure, it’s not for a thrill or for fame. On the contrary, he’s rather scared. He is afraid of heights and knows that hopping in that sleigh is going to test his courage, but he does it anyway. His desire to get that child her gift trumps his phobias. It’s that love for children and the magic of Christmas that eventually forces the other more narcissistic characters to realize that Christmas isn’t about them. It’s about the unbridled joy a child feels when he or she finally reveals the mystery behind the wrapping paper.

Still, its mediocrity can’t be overstated. It’s a pleasant enough film to watch, but it’s missing that extra spark. Children will have fun and adults won’t be upset they had to sit through it—it’s as harmless as can be—but after a few years, it will fade into oblivion while the true Christmas classics live on.

Arthur Christmas receives 3/5