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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Pirates! Band of Misfits



THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (Also in three-disc DVD/Blu-ray 3D Combo) (Three and a Half Stars)

U. K.: Peter Lord, 2012 (Sony Pictures)

Pirates! In real-life, most of them were probably scurvy gangs of sea-going psychopaths, but in the irresistible world of Aardman Animations, they’re cute and funny and as lovable as a hungry pussycat. Aaaaarrrh!  Myarrh! Utter contentment. Such is the effect of the latest stop-motion feature cartoon from the company that gave us Wallace & Gromit (good deed enough for one lifetime, you might think) and that here pleasures us with a new feature length stop-motion animated wonder called The Pirates! Band of Misfits — a yo-ho-ho voyage (sorry) based on one of the amusing “Pirates!“ book series by author/screenwriter Gideon Defoe.

Ostensibly a movie for children — and one that most children should love, even the potential sea-going psychopaths among them — it is also marvelously crafted and delightfully scripted and scrumptiously acted by the kind of high-class British players who usually pop up these days in Harry Potter movies. It’s not as good as the Aardman company’s inimitable Wallace & Gromit cartoons, but what is?

Lord, primarily a producer, has overseen much of the Aardman output, long and short,  since the ‘90s — including the Nick Park-directed Wallace & Gromit classics, the studio’s masterpieces. More occasionally, he’s directed (Wat‘s Pig) or co-directed (Chicken Run, with Park) . Here, working from a script by Defoe, with Aardman hand Jeff Newitt as co-director, Lord comes up with yet another jewel of stop-motion, that dauntingly ambitious and painstaking animation process, in which little clay puppets on small constructed wooden or clay backdrops are photographed one deliciously funny frame at a time, with a little CGI tossed in now and again these days for ocean waves and such.

The story, in the usual Aardman manner, is whimsical and literate and — the word has never fit better –droll. The story’s main character, The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), is a boastful, flamboyant, criminally ambitious  but basically harmless dude of a buccaneer, with an immense red beard in which he hides parrots and other piratical objects, and a whimsical and oddly named crew that includes his Second Mate, The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) and such other amiable privateers as The Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (easy-going U.S. weatherman Al Roker). They seem a fairly contented lot, except for Pirate Captain himself, who is rankled by the fact that he’s never won a Pirate-of- the-Year award, in competition with his main rascally rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and The Pirate King (Brian Blessed).

Short of resurrecting Errol Flynn (Captain Blood) or Robert Newton (Treasure Island’s Long John Silver) or Burt Lancaster (The Crimson Pirate) and enlisting their aid, advice and Newton‘s Aaaaaaarrrs.  something drastic must obviously be done to realize P. C.’s dream. (His “wanted” poster only has his reward at a fistful of doubloons.) And eventually, Pirate Captain thinks he’s found the key when his ship, which has been coming up empty in recent sea-sweeps and sea-attacks, happens upon no less than The Voyage of the Beagle, and its scientist-explorer, young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) — or “Chuck,” as Pirate Captain likes to call him. Eureka! Chuck excitedly identifies Captain’s strange, lumpy-looking parrot, as no parrot at all, but probably the last living example of the thought-to-be-extinct dodo, a discovery that Chuck convinces the Captain will reap “untold riches” if they exhibit Polly at the next scientist-of-the-year competition in London.

So it’s off to England — where scientific fame and riches supposedly await the daffily dauntless P. C., along with streets abustle with famous Londoners and such literary and historical allusions as Jane Austen (who proves priggish)  — but where the Captain must also contend with the woman he calls “Vicky”: pirate-hating, dodo-coveting Queen Victoria (played by thatsupreme character actress Imelda Staunton). Troubles at court and a sea-going fracas are obviously in the offing, and Lord and his Aardman armada don’t disappoint.

Like many of the best cartoon features of today, Pirates! is so much brighter and wittier and more entertaining than most of the current live action films for adults, it’s almost embarrassing. Everything is classier and better-done, especially the visuals and the dialogue. The fact that The Pirate Captain is being played by Grant — who would usually be cast as some sort of fop, and may yet be assigned to revive the Scarlet Pimpernel (They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere…) — indicates something of the the sheer joyous playfulness of Lord’s film, which is neither bloodthirsty nor psychopathic, save for the moments Vicky has Polly in her queenly clutches.

Grant is one of the most boyishly ingratiating of actors, a sunny-featured chap with the kind of smile (we only hear it in Pirates!) that will ease you out of any British public school scrape any day, anyhow. His charm sits well  on The Pirate Captain, especially matched against the bellicose roaring of Black Bellamy and The Pirate King. Tennant is a properly prim Darwin; his constant companion is a frisky, literate chimpanzee, whom he resembles.  Staunton, who played intense outlaw goodness in Mike Leigh’s great period British soial drama Vera Drake and, just as well, establishment evil in the Potter series, pilfers a lot of the movie here, and against formidable competition.

But the scripting and voice acting is only part of the secret of Aardman. Much of the magic comes from their incredible, painstaking but exuberant craft, the way they can make us relate so well to a dodo or an angry queen,  the sense in their movies of playthings-come-alive, the little worlds of  they create with such effortless-looking art and beguiling wizardry. Not many movies these days are genuinely lovable. But the Aardman movies — especially the Wallace and Gromits, but the best of this one too —  make you happy in ways that mostly haven’t been available to us since childhood, and that blessedly revive the spirit of youth and the joys of childhood as we watch, entranced. Pirates!

Extras: Peter Lord short films; Lord’s “Pirates” film film So You Want to be a Pirate? (Three Stars); Filmmaker’s Commentary; Featurettes; DVD-Rom link to Fun Online; Mr. Bobo Flash Card Challenge


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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: Pirates! Band of Misfits”

  1. Judy says:

    The kids and I just got Pirates Band of Misfits from Blockbuster and Home and could not be happier. This was definitely another powerhouse from the guys at Aardman Animations. I work at Dish but I am also going to school for Biology and I must say it was hilarious seeing Darwin. The plot was amazing, but I agree that the real magic came from the animation and the graphics. I had no idea that I didn’t get charged extra to rent blu-rays or else I would have been watching all of my movies like this months ago.


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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

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But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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