Out to prove that Disney and Johnny Depp don't have a lock on making movies about rowdy but lovable pirates, England's Aardman Animations (aka the Wallace & Gromit people) brings out The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a movie likely to entertain kids while driving people who hate pirate movies off the plank. (Especially if they're among those who believe pirate movies are bad for kids, what with Somali pirates out there looting and torturing in the real world without even a modicum of Capt. Jack Sparrow's social skills.)
Hugh Grant voice-stars as the cocky yet inept pirate captain, who apparently is also named Pirate Captain. (With a name like that, there's evidently no other line of work you can go into. You know, like Peter North.) The captain longs to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award, even though other more ruthless, more successful seafaring scoundrels (Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek voice a couple of these arrogant buggers) are also angling for the honor.
Unfortunately, he and his crew — which includes Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Anton Yelchin and (of course) Al Roker — fail at jacking and pillaging ships, often dropping in on vessels occupied by schoolkids on field trips, even ghosts. (They also attack a ship full of leprous voyagers, which led to one of the new year's most arcane controversies when real-life lepers objected: the offending affliction is now a generic plague, thank you very much.) When they raid a ship carrying the one and only Charles Darwin (David Tennant), the Captain makes a detour to pirate-outlawed London after Darwin tells him they could amass some booty showing off his most remarkable find to scientists: his pet dodo bird, Polly. And to think the pirates assumed she was just an obese parrot.
The movie's breakneck pace and absurdist sense of humor brings to mind both Looney Tunes cartoons and Monty Python, while its soundtrack peppers the proceedings with songs from British punk gods The Clash and others. With Chicken Run director Peter Lord melding stop-motion animation with computer-generated imagery, and Brit author Gideon Defoe adapting the first book in his nutty The Pirates! book series, the movie shares the book's taste for gleeful overall anarchy. (For some reason, it doesn't share the first book's rip-roaring title, used for the movie's U.K. release: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. Next to that, even The Pirates and a Shipload of Lepers sounds exciting.)
But despite the movie's anything-goes attitude in its filmmaking and narrative — this is a movie that paints Charles Darwin as a horny, sniveling prick who pines for Queen Victoria, herself depicted as a ravenous, sinister harridan hellbent on getting rid of pirates — the wacky-verging-on-naughty tone feels more forced than clever, like the weakest parts of the Wallace & Gromit feature. No matter how raucous the movie gets in tone and style, its plot charts a predictable course toward an obvious conclusion: it's too bad some of the gags' anarchic spirit couldn't veer the narrative into rougher waters.
That leaves The Pirates! Band of Misfits too cheerfully silly and intermittently inspired to dislike, yet hard to recommend with much enthusiasm. As kids' movies go, it'll keep young audiences amused until something louder and shinier comes along to distract them: it's the cinematic equivalent of dangling keys in their faces. Or a cutlass.
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