The Pirates! Review

poster from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

Aardman is one of my favorite animation companies because they consistently turn out movies that I love. The question with The Pirates! was whether it could come close to their earlier film Chicken Run, which sits near the top of my favorite movies list. I like pirates nearly as much as World War 2 (which was the theme in Chicken Run) so The Pirates! Band of Misfits (The Pirates! in an Adventure With Science in the UK) stood a pretty good chance.

The Pirate Captain and his crew, who are the hopeless butt of pirate community, team up with scientist Charles Darwin to earn enough booty to win the Pirate of the Year Award.

I mentioned in my trailer review of The Pirates! that I was concerned about the plot – that the Pirate of the Year Award thing just didn’t seem like enough to sustain it – and it wasn’t. While it was very funny, and the award plot was augmented with hefty doses of Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria, The Pirates! just doesn’t have that hint of genius that I saw in Chicken Run.

The central question in this movie is “will The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) win the Pirate of the Year Award” and as a source of dramatic tension, it just isn’t that gripping. It could have been, in an underdog sports team kind of way, but The Pirate Captain’s rivals, Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), are absent for the entire middle of the movie.

Cutlass Liz makes an entrance from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

With her big entrance, they make it seem like she’s important, but she only has like three lines.

Instead it falls to Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who wants to get his hands on the The Captain’s parrot, and Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), whose royal crest reads “I hate pirates,” to create the conflict during the bulk of the movie, and they just don’t do that great a job of it. Victoria’s motto should be: “I hate pirates, but I will repeatedly not try to kill them when I have the chance.”

The Captain, Polly, and Darwin are attacked by Queen Victoria from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

… except for one memorable moment at the end.

So in short, the plot is a mess, and it’s sort of Aardman’s fault. They let writer Gideon Defoe write the screenplay based on his own series of comedic novels, which means that there was no second person who could spot and fix the problems with the books. They were all just carried over wholesale into the film. Take the pirate crew for instance. It’s hard to get behind them because we never get to know them. They have, at best, one or two personality traits, and what’s worse – no names. They’re all called “The Pirate With a Scarf” (Martin Freeman) or “The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate” (Ashley Jensen), even in the credits.

the pirate crew from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

Sorry, I can’t cheer with you because I don’t care.

They’re not even a “band of misfits” like the title suggests. Physically they are, being made up of a guy with gout (Brendan Gleeson), a girl in a knitted beard, a bruiser who cries at sunsets (Al Roker), and an albino (Anton Yelchin – US, Russell Tovey – UK), but in terms of their skill at piracy, they suffer more from bad luck than incompetence. They find it easy enough to locate, chase down, attack, and board other ships, but what they find on them is never treasure, through no fault of their own.

The Captain raids a leper boat from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

It’s not like leper boats have big stickers on the side saying “CAUTION, LEPERS!”

In fact, they’re quite talented, especially in the fields of disguise and hiding things. This does lead to a few funny moments, like the one where they disguise themselves as Girl Guides (and it is GUIDES not SCOUTS, as the movie says, since they’re British and not American) to avoid being strung up in a gibbet at the mouth of the Thames for being pirates in Victorian London, or the one where they disguise themselves as scientists to enter the Royal Academy.

the Scientist Captain from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

My discovery will make electricity look like a pile of crap!

The characters are good for a few jokes each, but since they’re pretty one-note, they can’t carry the whole movie. Neither can the plot, because the science sequence is over too soon. So how then, did this movie end up being funny? There were three things in this movie that really made me laugh: dialogue, background, and Mr. Bobo. Characters were always shouting things like “fire the things that go bang!” and Aarman’s animators have filled the backgrounds with hundreds of jokes, ranging from The Captain riding a ship named the S.S. Loser after his scheme implodes to the logo of the Royal Academy of Science, which reads “playing God since 1660.”

the Captain rails over his meager reward money from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

Look at the reward on The Captain’s wanted poster: 12 Dubloons and a free pen.

And then there’s Mr. Bobo, Charles Darwin’s assistant – a chimp in a butler outfit who talks through flash cards.

Mr. Bobo from the Aarman/Sony film The Pirates!

That just never gets old.

So is The Pirates! worth seeing? Yes. Once. Both kids and adults will find it funny. Don’t bother paying the extra to see it in 3D, though, because I can’t recall one sequence that made use of it in the entire film. The most exciting 3D moment was the Despicable Me 2 trailer. I won’t be buying a DVD of it either, as The Pirates! didn’t inspire any kind of devotion in me, except to Mr. Bobo. I could be persuaded to buy a poster or toy of him.

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