Aardman Studios has done it yet again and for the second time in a year after last holiday season’s Arthur Christmas. Now the studio finds a wealth of abundant source material (courtesy of Gideon Defoe’s series of books, The Pirates!) for Pirates! Band of Misfits, and a hopeful sequel to this adventure is likely waiting in the rafters. This particular adventure is a worthy one, and the script crackles with dry wit and droll humor. In fact, it would charm your pants off if it wasn’t so bloody PG-rated. Visually speaking, Band of Misfits is rather stunning with perhaps the best visuals that Aardman has ever committed to screen (and that’s a pretty high standard to beat). All settings are beautifully rendered while Aardman harkens back to its stop-motion Claymation goodness (with some judicious CGI assistance to render natural elements). While it’s equally easy to get lost within the story’s rum-soaked pirate hangout, Blood Island, and the sinister, smog-cloaked atmosphere of Victorian England, this is obviously a very British creation, so it’s best (if one can help it) to not get lost in the beauty because there is a fine tale to be told as well.
Here’s the lowdown: Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his crew members, who are known only by a series of apt descriptors, including Pirate With a Scarf (Martin Freeman), Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey), Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) — obviously a girl wearing a beard and male clothing — sail the high seas in quite the inept manner and know little joy beyond ham dinners. The main problem is that Captain is a really crappy pirate. He and his crew simply aren’t scary enough, nor do they possess enough booty to impress. Nonetheless, Captain hungers to win the Pirate of the Year award but faces stiff competition from the likes of rivals Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), who all outrank him in nearly every qualification except for one, which is down to sheer luck.
It turns out that Captain possesses a not-quite-parrot named Polly, who just happens to actually be the only Dodo bird in existence (we find this out after Captain’s crew raids the boat of Charles Darwin, who is voiced by David Tennant). Polly makes quite an impression upon Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who seeks to capture the bird for her own purposes and offers Captain a substantial reward to turn over the feathered creature. Of course, everything is not as it seems, and the respective motives of Captain, Darwin, and Victoria ensure the impossibility of all parties receiving what they desire, and if even if they did, victory would certainly be hollow. This leads to a rather complex moral dilemma within a children’s film, which translates into a bit of subtle subterfuge worth appreciating when compared to the usual kiddie-flick multiplex fare.
Throughout the movie, Hugh Grant has a jolly old time disappearing into his very un-Hugh Grant-like character and escaping from own floppy-haired typecasting. The rest of the voice cast (particularly Ashley Jensen, who is just as enjoyable here as she was while playing the sexy elf in Arthur Christmas) are all quite competent as well. If there was any weakness to be found within this movie, it would be that the story moves so fast that its characters aren’t particularly engaging beyond the adventure itself. Sure, they’re fun pirates and associated ilk, but it’s hard to care whether they live, die, or otherwise prosper. In the grand scheme of marry/fuck/kill, most of these characters would fall into the nonexistent category of “none of the above.”
Still, Pirates! Band of Misfits remains a pretty engaging flick for the kids, older as well as younger, who will appreciate the action and humor while the grownups will similarly stick around mentally for the clever dialogue and unconventional take on various historical figures. For such a British standby as Aardman has shown itself to be, they sure don’t hold back while lightly screwing around with the establishment.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.
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