Close to the beginning of Pirates: Band of Misfits, a wooden sign pops up in the bottom of the frame as the camera pulls back. As the camera pulls back even further, there’s a guy shown holding the sign, and he acts as if he’s been caught there, not supposed to be in the shot. He looks around embarrassedly then smiles and shrugs. Over half the audience will miss the joke, but its gags like these that are a staple of Aardman animation (you really have to look in the background to get most of them). Unfortunately, these are too few and far between.
The audience is introduced to the motley crew with a heated argument over what the best thing about being pirates is—“It’s the looting!” “No, it’s the cutlasses!”—when the Pirate Captain (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Hugh Grant) kicks open the door. “It’s not the grog, or the scurvy, or the mermaids dressed in scantily clad outfits,” he explains, “The best thing about being a pirate is…Ham Nite!”
You realize immediately these pirates, for all their scalli-wagging and keelhauling, just aren’t very good at their chosen profession. After all, with names like The Albino Pirate, The Pirate With Gout, and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (an obvious woman with a huge fake beard) one can imagine the canyon between real piracy and what this band does. Point in fact, the Pirate Captain’s parrot Polly is actually a dodo that he just claims is “big-boned.”
The Pirate Captain has lost the Pirate of the Year award every single year—which, in his logic, gives him an incredible chance to win this time around. The pirate with the most loot wins, and year after year it’s Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven). The Pirate Captain, up against such booty-liscious buccaneers as Cutlass Liz (a poorly dressed and disproportionate Selma Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), he realizes he must plunder and pillage every ship he can. After numerously humorous failed attempts, the Pirate Captain stumbles upon Charles Darwin’s ship. There, Darwin sees Polly…and schemes a plan to get the dodo to a Scientist’s Convention in London where he will not only get the recognition from his peers he deserves, he’ll finally get a girl to notice him. Because, of course, the only reason scientists invent anything is to get girls to notice them.
I wanted to like Pirates, but found myself disappointed at several turns. The characters, for a 3-D plasticine, stop-animation movie (although this one’s computer animated, like Aardman Studios’ Flushed Away), were incredibly flat. The balcony-bottomed, gap-toothed Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) is an adversarial character from the first scene without any depth. The secondary characters, the Band of Misfits themselves, are all completely interchangeable—with the exception of The Albino Pirate (hilariously voiced by Anton Yelchin).
One thing that was the most disappointing was the design of the pirates themselves. Aardman knows how to mold a nice British overbite, and characters from Wallace and Gromit and Flushed Away still had the bulgy-eyed, wide-mouth-full of teeth look that is classic Aardman. In Pirates, the characters look too real. The ridiculous look of the characters helps the ridiculousness of the dialogue (In Curse of the WereRabbit, for instance, a white-haired vicar with a huge overbite howls, “Be-ware. Beware the MOON!” as he points to another character hung on a weathervane with his pants half down and his rear end showing) but in Pirates, it comes across as not unique enough. It lacked the cleverness that previous Aardman Studio films offered.
There are plenty of opportunities for humor; jokes sail by like cannonballs across a bow, there’s a hilarious song about “I’m not crying” (listen for it, it’s worth it), and Charles Darwin’s impetuous monkey can only speak with cue cards. However, the latter is totally lost on the segment of the audience who can’t read yet. Pirates is funny, but in a “oh, that was a little clever” chuckle, and not a “I can’t wait to quote this line to my friends” belly laugh.
More than a few times I winced at some of the choices Aardman made with Pirates. There are several hand-drawn animated cut-scenes made to look like an old treasure map—however the mermaids on ye olde map aren’t wearing any clothes and can be clearly seen from the side. Charles Darwin and his intelligent monkey are central characters, and while evolution isn’t overtly talked about, other characters quip, “You two look awfully alike. Are you sure you aren’t related?” Darwin also uses the swear word for bottom when talking about covering up his simian companion’s rather large, red posterior. The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate is caught in a bathtub (covered with suds, but the implication is still there) during a crazy chase scene in Darwin’s house. It seems most of the jokes are aimed slightly above the kids’ heads, but instead of making the adults laugh, it just caused defeated looks between parents hoping their kids won’t get it.