Film Review: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Mama Fisi
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Several years ago, I did an arc in my comic strip that involved pirates. Since then, it has been assumed that I have a "thing" for pirates, in the way that people have "things" for trains or Star Trek or stamps. Which is why my brother-in-law gave me a book titled "The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!" because my husband actually does have a "thing" for Star Trek and science stuff. It was Jim's idea of a really good joke. The book was recently made into a CGI/stop motion animation film by Aardman Productions, the outfit responsible for the "Wallace & Gromit" cartoons. We watched this film the other night, and, to paraphrase Queen Victoria, we were amused. Possibly far more than we should have been.

The film bears little resemblance to the book, and is better off for that. The book follows the rather wandering adventures of The Pirate Captain and his ham-loving crew of descriptively-named pirates ("The Pirate With Gout," "The Pirate With The Scarf") as they sail the seas trying to capture a lot of loot, and end up sinking The Beagle and capturing Charles Darwin, who tells them that rhodium is more valuable than gold. Let's just say the story isn't really one for historical accuracy.

The movie charts a similar course, only the plot is a bit more focused, with The Pirate Captain trying to win the Pirate of the Year Award, which is rather like Charlie Brown hoping to win the World Series...or even just get to go to a game of the World Series. Or even tune it in on his TV. In other words, The Pirate Captain, despite having a luxuriant beard, is hopelessly outclassed by the competition.

He enters anyway, because otherwise we wouldn't have a story, and runs into a string of really, really bad luck, culminating in his attack on The Beagle, a research ship crewed solely by the egg-headed scientist, Charles Darwin, who at this point in time does not have a luxuriant beard.

Darwin recognizes the Pirate Captain's "big-boned" parrot as the last surviving Dodo, and makes such a fuss over this discovery that the pirates are talked into sailing to London to enter Polly in the Scientific Discovery of the Year Award competition. This, in spite of the fact that Queen Victoria is a notorious enemy of pirates and has ordered their eradication.

Masters of disguise, the pirates sneak into the competition, where they do in fact win the top prize--a tiny cup, and a personal audience with the Queen. Darwin is furious, because it had been his intention to present Polly, but the Pirate Captain would not allow her out of his sight, and now this swaggering oaf would get to meet the woman Darwin has a crush on.

The Queen is so impressed with the bird that she insists it be given to her for her personal zoo. The Pirate Captain demurs, but his disguise slips, and upon realizing that he is actually a pirate, the Queen angrily orders his immediate execution. However, Darwin points out that as the Captain had hidden Polly, if he is killed, no one would ever be able to find the bird, so the Queen pardons him. She promises him a vast amount of treasure in exchange for the bird, and the Captain actually accepts her terms, without telling the crew.

Back in the Caribbean, the Pirate Captain brings his loot to the Pirate of the Year Awards, and indeed wins the top prize; but just as he is accepting the golden skull trophy from the Pirate King, his rival, Black Bellamy, reveals that the Pirate Captain had received a pardon from the Queen, and therfore was no longer really a pirate. Thus the prize--and all his loot--was forfeit.

Kicked out of the Brotherhood of the Coast, and shunned by his crew, horrified that he would sell Polly in order to win the Pirate of the Year Award, the Pirate Captain returns to London and tries to make ends meet peddling baby clothes from a pushcart.

When he decides to try to steal Polly back, he meets a derelict Darwin in the empty Zoo, who tells him mournfully that the Queen is really a member of a secret dining club for extremely wealthy world leaders--and Polly is her contribution to the menu.

They resolve to save the Dodo, and manage to use a balloonicycle to get aboard her steamship, the QV I, where the banquet is being prepared. Meanwhile, Darwin's "manpanzee," Mr. Bobo--who communicates through flash cards--goes off to alert the pirate crew to their captain's need.

They manage to liberate Polly, only to become trapped by the Queen, who turns out to be something of a Ninja swordswoman. She furiously informs the Captain that she hates pirates because they're so old-fashioned.

During the protracted sword fight, which takes place in the ship's huge galley, the Captain manages to drop a load of vinegar barrels into the ship's store of baking soda (don't ask, just...don't) and, in one of the best sight gags in the film, the ship explodes and splits in half, and begins to sink at the head in a shot reminiscent of "Titanic."

The Queen is not defeated, though--she gets hold of Polly and the balloonicycle, and attempts to make off with the bird, and send the Captain to his doom on the exposed, whirling propeller--but Polly herself turns the tide, and the pirates emerge victorious. Or rather, Victoria-less.

The film ends with the pirates sailing off into the sunset--only to have their entire ship swallowed by the sea-monster that the Captain had been assured had been put on the map for decorative purposes only.

Now, it's a very silly film, and I found myself laughing my head off for most of it. I feel rather guilty about that, mainly because it's *such* a stupid film, and it portrays Queen Victoria as a crazed, sadistic shrew. It also doesn't give a hoot about anachronisms--in other words, the best way to enjoy this story, is to leave your pedantry at the door.

It's chock-full of sight gags and sly references, and the only thing that annoyed me about it was the choice of background music, but that's just me. The post-script visuals playing under the credits show happy endings for all the characters except Victoria, whose deflating balloon drops her into a gathering of the rare animals she was planning to eat.

One thing that puzzled me, though, was whether or not this film was CGI, stop action, or a hybrid of the two. The character designs are classic Aardman, but they do not look like puppets; their movements are too fluid and sophisticated to be hand-manipulated. Toward the beginning of the film, there's something like a stop-motion jitter, but it looks almost as though they'd put it on over the CGI to make it *appear* to be stop-motion...it distracted me quite a bit. As the film went on, they either left off the effect, or got better at it, or I started to ignore it, but it wasn't as noticeable.

The look of the film is beautiful--gorgously-created sets and backgrounds, charming characters, and lots of action. And best of all, it's funny without being rude, crude, or crass.

The pirate craze may be waning--see this film before it sails over the horizon.

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