This never would have been my first choice of film to see. However, Steph had a Groupon for movie theater tickets that was expiring the next day, and this was the best available option. I have nothing against kids’ movies, and I do enjoy claymation, so off we went.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is about the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), the bumbling leader of a ragtag team of buccaneers, fueled by the prospects of booty and ham dinners. Every year, the Pirate Captain enters a “Pirate of the Year” competition, and every year he is overshadowed by much more successful and ruthless pirates. On a plundering mission gone wrong, the Pirate Captain meets Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant), who tells him that the captain’s beloved parrot is, in fact, the last remaining dodo. Darwin tells the Pirate Captain that the discovery of a supposedly extinct bird would surely win him first place in an annual science competition. The Pirate Captain plots to enter the parrot/dodo in the competition himself, make off with the prize money, and then win the Pirate of the Year award. He is aided by his trusty second-in-command, voiced by Martin Freeman. Obligatory chaos ensues, including a psychotic Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton) hell-bent on eating the rarest animals in the world. Other voices are provided by Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Al Roker, Ashley Jensen, and Brian Blessed.
I’ll start with the positives. The vocal actors were largely excellent. Hugh Grant was particularly noteworthy. An actor that often gets on my nerves (partially because of his voice), he finds his inner pirate and really channels the role well. Martin Freeman is also fantastic, though he is much more recognizable as himself. The script had several lines that were quite funny, and all of the actors were essential in bringing the dialogue to life.
The animation was also quite impressive. The sheer scale of the movie made its execution noteworthy, and I always enjoy watching claymation films through a “how’d they do that” lens. (Check out this making of featurette.) That being said, the trailers for the film boasted the production ties to the Wallace & Gromit franchise (which I love and have a lot of nostalgia for). While there were certainly aesthetic similarities to the series, The Pirates lacked the heart of these claymation classics. Part of what I love about claymation is the DYI feel to it, the idea that it is being created by one person, possibly in their attic. The Pirates, much like other big-budget claymation feature films, had none of this charm, and felt almost too polished to truly belong in the genre. The lines between old-school animation styles and modern computer animation seem to be blurring.
This lack of charm bled into the narrative as well. The story felt like a half-baked premise, run amok by a lazy committee of writers up against a deadline. There’s no human element to the story, and I can’t hear the voice of the screenwriter in it at all. The plot seemed mostly designed merely as a way to connect various overly-contrived bouts of physical comedy. I should have been clued in by the title: always be wary of a movie that sounds like a sequel but isn’t. While the younger children in the audience squealed with delight while the pirate crew rode a speeding bathtub through the cobblestone streets of London or a ship was destroyed by the unfortunate combination of baking soda and kegs of vinegar (really), there wasn’t much of anything offered up for older audience members to enjoy.
I also had a few topical complaints with the film, and its appropriateness for children. First was the depiction of two black pirates (two of the other contenders for pirate of the year). The man was modeled after some sort of pirate-pimp with a leopard-print hat, and the woman was decked out in bejeweled bling. There was no discernible reason behind these costume choices, and the overtly racialized characterizations seemed inappropriate, particularly in a children’s film. Second, I don’t have a blanket policy against violence in children’s movies, but I do think that it needs to be tasteful and justifiable in the plot when it is present. In addition to the obligatory comedic moments where a person is crushed by the side of a ship or a falling whale, there were at least two scenes where a person is literally stabbed in the back for no reason at all. (If memory serves, it was actually at the hands of one of the black pirates.) This also seemed a tad gratuitous for such an otherwise silly film. Finally (and yes, I’m a biology nerd), I take issue with the depiction of Charles Darwin in the film. While he’s not quite portrayed as a villain, many of his actions and motivations could easily be described as sinister. I worry about introducing children to a historical figure in such a way, particularly when there is a legitimate faction in the world that would like to remove Darwin and his legacy from textbooks. (I’m less concerned with the depiction of Queen Victoria, who actually was portrayed as a villain. She can fend for herself.)
All in all, I was less than impressed. Clearly I was not the target audience, but I think even children deserve a better story than this offered up. If your kids want claymation, go rent the original Wallace & Gromit shorts, which remain absolutely delightful. And if they want pirates, pop in any of the adaptations of Peter Pan. And if you’re looking for an animated film with a quality story that will make adults grab for the tissues as well, reach for anything from the Pixar shelf. Ultimately, movies like this just serve to remind us what a treasure actual good children’s movies are.