Friday, April 27, 2012


You could learn a lot from The Pirates! Band of Misfits. I certainly did. I never knew, for instance, that Charles Darwin was a whiny sort who really just wanted to get a girlfriend, or that Jane Austen and The Elephant Man had a personal connection, or that Queen Victoria was a member of a secret society that enjoyed…well, I don’t want to give too many of the film’s astounding revelations away.

From the hero, known simply as The Pirate Captain, I learned that the best thing about piracy is Ham Night. At one point he also proclaims that the friends you make after you become famous are far better than the ones you had before, and at another point that certain undertakings are only impossible if you stop and think about them. But he too must learn his lessons—most importantly, he learns that you can’t just say “Arrrr” at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything OK.

Voiced by Hugh Grant, The Pirate Captain commands, not very despotically, a crew of sensitive-souled types such as The Pirate With a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson) and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), who may possibly be a woman in pirate drag and a false beard. He’s really not a bad sort, as pirate captains go, but he has a tragic weakness—for recognition by his peers. His lifelong ambition has been to be named Pirate of the Year, but alas the only award he’s landed so far is “Best Anecdote About a Squid.”

Many of us might regard such an accolade as achievement enough for any career, but The Pirate Captain just can’t give up on Pirate of the Year, an unrealistic goal in light of his lack of booty (in the older sense of the term). When he raids a ship that turns out to be HMS Beagle, The Captain learns from Darwin (David Tennant) that his beloved, unusually large avian mascot Polly isn’t actually a parrot at all, but rather a surviving dodo, and that if the young naturalist could present it to the Royal Academy, it would surely be named discovery of the year.

The Captain is sure that this will somehow be a stepping-stone to Pirate of the Year, so he hoists sail for London.

Adapted from Gideon Defoe’s 2004 book The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (under which title the film has been released in the UK), this stop-motion Aardman Studios feature was directed by Peter Lord, of Chicken Run. It’s far more freewheeling and absurd than the tense, dramatic Chicken Run, however.

I loved how The Pirates! turned anachronism into a virtue, creating a mash-up of a 19th Century in which Darwin, Victoria, Jane Austen and The Elephant Man all rubbed elbows, and, for that matter, also encompassing the 17th and 18th Centuries, during which, after all, most of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy actually took place. I loved Darwin’s stone-faced simian butler, and the alternately furious and flirtatious Queen (Imelda Staunton), and the movie’s odd, persistent fixation on ham, right down to the Skull and Crossed Hambones on the flag.

Silliness like this—cheerful, defiant silliness as only the Brits, it seems, can do it—is, I think, good for one’s health from time to time, and so is the low-tech, hand-wrought madness of stop-motion animation. Both have become rarities, and their confluence makes The Pirates! a small treasure.

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