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The Pirates! (Who don’t do anything.)

If you want swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, you won’t find it here. The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the new stop-motion film from Aardman Animations, has no interest in any of the things that have traditionally made pirates exciting characters. In the beginning, we see them sail around expertly in their ship, bouncing high in the air on the force of their cannon blasts, freewheeling through the ocean, and it looks like we’re in for an exciting time. But that ends quickly. The pirates never successfully loot anything, or get into any real sword fights (the Captain eventually gets into one, but he’s horrible at it,) or do any of the things that a good pirate is supposed to be able to do. To make things worse, the movie quickly throws all possibility for pirate adventure out the window by putting our characters on land and involving them in a plot to win a science competition. Look, I understand that it’s the point — that these pirates are supposed to be horrible at what they do — but these guys are boring! These characters aren’t worth making a movie about! Give me a band of real pirates, who know how to loot ships and fight with swords! Give me some excitement, damn it!

Here is the basic story. The Pirate Captain, whose name is Pirate Captain (the movie doesn’t know how to make this funny; it only demonstrates that the writers are too lazy to give him a real name,) wants to win the prestigious Pirate of the Year award. His competition is pretty impressive. One rival pirate even rides into a tavern inside the mouth of a whale. Yes, the whale jumps out of the water and smashes out one wall of the tavern, and then the pirate steps out of its mouth. The Pirate Captain decides to take on the challenge anyway and sets out to capture some loot. In a brief sequence, the Captain and his crew capture and board a number of ships one by one, only to find that they’ve messed up each time and the captured ship is just carrying plague victims, or school children, or some other thing. Then the Pirates capture Charles Darwin, famed naturalist and father of the Theory of Evolution. Yes, this is just as stupid as it sounds. Darwin explains to the pirates that their beloved “parrot” Polly is in fact a dodo bird, which by this point is supposed to be an extinct species. He convinces the pirates to go to London for a science competition, where the dodo bird is sure to win first prize, and Darwin promises the winnings will include significant treasure. Darwin, meanwhile, has his own nefarious plans to steal Polly and use her for his own ends. And yes, making Darwin a villain is as stupid as it sounds.

The pirates disguise themselves as scientists and win the competition, but they accidentally blow their cover. Queen Victoria and her fellow Britons, you see, absolutely loathe pirates, who stand in the way of the British Navy’s total domination of the world’s oceans. Through a series of events, The Pirate Captain ends up selling Polly to Queen Victoria, unbeknownst to his crew, for a large bounty of gold. He tells his crew he stole the gold, and they set sail for the Pirate of the Year awards, certain that this treasure will win the contest for the Captain. But the Pirate Captain ends up getting disqualified (while in London, he received a pardon from the Queen, which means he is no longer a pirate in the eyes of his peers,) and then he reveals his shameful deed (selling Polly) to his crew, who are very upset. So of course, what happens? The Pirate Captain sets out to get Polly back, has a boring fight with Queen Victoria, learns that friends are more important than money. This is what the movie boils down to; a well-loved man makes a bad choice, does a bad thing, alienates his friends, goes out to make things right again, and Learns a Valuable Lesson About Life. It’s boring and trite.

There are some funny moments, frequently arising out of the character of our cast. When the pirates arrive in London, Darwin tells them the streets aren’t safe for pirates. The pirates are offscreen and Darwin is looking out at the street. When he turns back to the pirates, reveal: they are all dressed as girl scouts. “There are no pirates here! Only girl scouts!” Darwin stares at the silly disguises. Then the Pirate Captain, thinking Darwin can’t recognize them, says, “We’re not really girl scouts. It’s us, the pirates. We’re masters of disguise.” That was a funny moment. Later, when the Pirates need to enter the science competition and only scientists can get in, they do the same routine; the pirates are offscreen, then we reveal that they are now disguised as scientists, then the Captain explains to Darwin that it’s really them. “We’re masters of disguise.” Yes, the joke is funny twice. It’s also funny that the Captain, disguised as a scientist, introduces himself as “The Scientist Captain.”

Another good bit involves the Captain’s advice to Darwin regarding women. “You should act aloof. Women love it when you act aloof.” Another involves Darwin’s chimpanzee companion, Mr. Bobo, who speaks by holding up cards with words written on them. The chimpanzee and this running gag are not themselves funny, but there is a funny bit in the scene where Darwin explains his plan to Mr. Bobo. Darwin doesn’t want anyone to overhear their plot. Bobo holds up a card that says “But…,” Darwin hushes him, and then Bobo holds up a card that says “but…” written in smaller letters. At the science competition, one of the entrants plans to demonstrate the reaction between vinegar and baking soda. Queen Victoria has a ship called the QV1. And there is one clever running gag about a pirate in the Captain’s crew who is actually a woman with a false beard. Her disguise isn’t very convincing, but the Pirate Captain, completely oblivious, calls her “Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate.”

Unfortunately, the bad outweighs the good. Let’s start with Darwin. The way they portray him, you’d think Aardman was in the Creationist camp. When we first meet Darwin, we pan across a room of preserved specimens, progressing from rather primitive creatures to an ape and then to Darwin; arranged, yes, like an evolutionary chart. Maybe you’d be tempted to write that off. Darwin is portrayed as a buffoon, a villain (at least until the third act,) and a failure with women. Maybe you’d be tempted to write that off, though it’s not as easy. Darwin has his friend Mr. Bobo, whom he has dressed up in a suit. The message would seem to be that Darwin has apes on the brain and doesn’t understand the difference between chimpanzees and men. This we may have a harder time writing off. Then there’s the Pirate Captain’s off-hand question to Darwin about whether he and the chimp are related in some way. Maybe you want to write that off, but it harkens back to the famous drawing that put Darwin’s head on a monkey’s body, which implied that Darwin’s ideas made him less human than everyone else. Then, right after that bit, we see a sign over a storefront that says “MAN KEE Chinese Laundry.” It’s obvious: the suggestion of something half-man, half-monkey. Aardman is big on hiding jokes in little details like these: this is no accident. And finally, to top it all off, Darwin gets tarred and feathered (accidentally.) That’s a tough one to write off. Maybe these jokes only came about because the writers are lazy, unfunny people. Because that’s certainly true about them. But if it was an attack on Darwin, I have this to say to them: get over it, guys. Darwin’s theories were correct, and yours were wrong. Accept that you were wrong and move on.

Beyond that, most of the jokes are anachronism. Modern shit. The fact of the matter is the writers wanted to tell a story with pirates in it but didn’t really want to work in the pirate idiom. There are no desert islands, daring fights, conquests, or treasures captured, and there is far less sailing than a pirate story should have. There is no piracy in this story about pirates. So instead, we have the story we have, and we get constant modern references. A lady pirate named Cutlass Liz (voiced by Salma Hayek in a way that screams “Celebrity voice coming through!”) has a glitter-covered necklace that spells out her name. The Pirate Captain says that he has called his crew a crew “in the street sense” and then proceeds to make a gang sign with his hands. There are numerous bits of technology thrown in, like elevators (complete with an Elevator Music version of “The Girl from Ipanema”), mechanical billboards, and an airship. (Incidentally, the technology verges at times on steampunk, though to my eye, it doesn’t quite count as steampunk because it doesn’t emphasize the workings of the technology as much as steampunk would; it just puts various machines out there and leaves it at that.) None of these things are funny. They all scream, “Look! This didn’t exist back then! That means this is a joke! And all jokes are funny!”

I have said many times that the pirates never have a real sword fight. There is one sword fight involving the Pirate Captain, but he fights so terribly, it really doesn’t count. His opponent is Queen Victoria herself, who plans to eat Polly. Queen Victoria comes after the Captain with a sword in each hand, swings from a ceiling fixture, and generally fights like Xena. Yes, this is as stupid as it sounds. The Captain, understand, does not fight her off, sword to sword, like a real pirate would, because that would be exciting, and we can’t have that. The most he does is use a knife to cut a rope and make a bunch of barrels fall from the ceiling onto Queen Victoria. Because that way, he can win the fight and still be a pussy. Did I mention the Captain and his crew are pathetic excuses for pirates? Just want to be sure we’re clear.

The film shows comparative restraint in choosing its voice cast. There are a lot of celebrities, but not so many A-listers. There’s Salma Hayek, as mentioned above, and she gets way higher billing than she should for the incidental character she voices. And there’s Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain, though he fits the role quite well (certainly doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb the way Salma Hayek does.) There are other celebrities at work, but they’re mostly BBC regulars, like Martin Freeman (Tim from The Office, Watson from Sherlock) and David Tenant from Dr. Who. Oh yes, Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter plays Queen Victoria. And Al Roker, of all people, plays an incidental character. Star-studded casts for voice acting roles usually bother me, as they seem to be more of a marketing ploy than an artistic choice and are often used as an excuse not to tell a good story. But in this case, we don’t get the obligatory flood of A-list celebrities we so often get in Hollywood productions, so I’ll let it pass.

The movie is pretty to look at, but so what? They didn’t create good characters or give them something worthwhile to do. The movie was tedious. The few chuckles and the well-constructed visuals are winsome at times, but it still falls just south of good. ** 1/2 our of *****

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