Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits: Swashbuckling silliness

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, and rather pointlessly, for mild rude humor 
By Derrick Bang

With characters dubbed “The Pirate with a Scarf,” “The Pirate with Gout” and “The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens,” you just know this won’t be a sea saga in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Having finally learned why Queen Victoria really wants to purchase his beloved
ship's "parrot," Polly, Pirate Captain discovers that hell hath no fury like a
scorned queen ... and the situation is about to get much worse.
Indeed, Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits does its best to send up every bit of classic buccaneer lore. We should expect no less from the animation studio that brought us the lovable Wallace & Gromit, and went on to big-screen success with hits such as Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas.

This new film’s deliciously snarky script comes from British author Gideon Defoe, who adapted his own equally whimsical series of (thus far) five books, beginning with 2004’s The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists and continuing through this year’s The Pirates! in an Adventure with the Romantics. Fans cite Defoe as a worthy contemporary of Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry, Jasper Fforde and the Monty Python crew ... which, in turn, makes the Pirates books perfect fodder for the gleeful geniuses at Aardman.

Unlike Arthur Christmas, which was a wholly computer-generated production, The Pirates! Band of Misfits relies almost entirely on the clay animation used for Wallace & Gromit’s adventures. This lends a sense of real-world dimensionality and “warmth” that CGI still can’t quite replicate, along with the equally charming “faults” that result from working with clay: occasional finger smudges, rogue shadows and the “rippling effect” that characterizes some movement.

Then, too, the goggly eyes and pursed, often O-shaped lips are hilarious by themselves; one can’t help being captivated by these characters, and amazed by the numerous complex stage settings for any given scene. We’re sophisticated enough, these days, to recognize and appreciate the painstaking, meticulous, arduous work that goes into something as simple as having six pirates stroll down a London street.

The story begins as the impeccably groomed and luxuriously bearded Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his crew make port at a carefully concealed cove, where brigands from all over the world have gathered to compete for the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. The chief contenders are Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), all of whom laugh at Pirate Captain’s interest in the skull-and-crossbones award.

After all, Pirate Captain’s crew hasn’t pillaged much booty, and the bounty for his capture is a mere £12.

Determined to make up for lost time, Pirate Captain and his crew hit the high seas and board numerous vessels, finding — alas! — nothing but plague ships, ghost ships and vessels containing children on summer outings. The last straw lands when Pirate Captain commandeers the HMS Beagle, which contains only a lovelorn Charles Darwin (David Tennant, of Doctor Who fame) and his sidekick, an impressively intelligent chimpanzee dubbed Mister Bobo. The latter communicates via whimsical flash cards ... which Mister Bobo must find frustrating, since he’s certainly smarter than anybody else in this story.

(Mister Bobo, we’re told in the closing credits, “played himself.”)

Booty-wise, Pirate Captain’s hands still remain empty ... but all may not be lost. Darwin recognizes what Pirate Captain and his crew have failed to perceive, all these years: Their ship’s mascot, Polly, isn’t a parrot ... but, rather, the last living dodo in existence. The bird’s value therefore is incalculable, and Darwin urges Pirate Captain to set sail for London, in order to showcase Polly and reap “untold riches” from the British scientific community.

But heading to London means dodging the wrath of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who hates pirates with a passion. Disguising themselves as Girl Scouts takes the pirates only so far; shifting to disguises as scientists only complicates matters. Besides, the scheming Darwin hasn’t been exactly candid, with respect to his own motives; worse yet, Queen Victoria eventually is revealed to have a ghastly hidden agenda of her own.

But that’s not the worst part. Polly has long been the crew’s good-luck charm; would Pirate Captain really give her up, simply to bask in the glory of being crowned Pirate of the Year?

Say it isn’t so, beg The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen, occasionally “forgetting” to deepen her voice) and The Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin).

The resulting skirmishes are delightfully wacky, laden with sight-gags — be sure to read all the signs, business names and other printed matter in the backgrounds — and punctuated by daffy chases that involve everything from bicycles and bathtubs (!) to pedal-powered hot air balloons.

Mister Bobo’s impeccably timed messages are a constant hoot, whether responding to direct questions or rapidly shuttling through cards that read “Uh-oh,” as something dreadful is about to take place. Early on, during a clandestine conversation with Darwin, which The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) strains to overhear, Mister Bobo’s printed messages shift from large capital letters to tiny print. You simply can’t help giggling at that sort of stuff.

The film’s strongest relationship is that between Pirate Captain and The Pirate with a Scarf, whom the captain always refers to as “Number Two.” Pirate Captain relies on this trusted deputy, although his sage advice usually is ignored.

“Do you remember that talk we had?” Number Two asks, as Pirate Captain prepares to embrace an ill-advised plan.

“The one about whether pigs are actually a type of fruit?” Pirate Captain queries.

“No,” Number Two answers, patiently, “the one about trying to avoid hare-brained schemes that end with us facing certain death.”

It’s an odd fact of artistic life that only British actors can deliver lines like that, with the understatement required to achieve the desired giggle. Grant imbues Pirate Captain with his signature dry, often self-mocking cadence: forever unaware of the absurdities that pass between his lips. Tenant turns Darwin into a whiny, defensive little ferret, and Staunton’s Queen Victoria is a shrieking, roly-poly nightmare come to life.

Directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt blend the traditional clay animation with bits of CGI, the latter mostly employed for “long shots” of Pirate Captain’s ship navigating the seven seas, or mid-air business with leaping whales and the aforementioned hot-air balloon. Long journeys are tracked in the old movie style, via an icon on a flattened map, as the artistic images — Neptune, wind-puffing winged cherubs, whatever — come to life and impede progress. Navigating the map’s raised fold also causes problems.

Such visual gimmickry comes fast and furious; it can be difficult to track all the background bits of business, while paying attention to the foreground action. (The solution is simple, of course: See the film a second time.) And you’ll want to remain seated for the entire closing credits, which scroll against a constantly changing backdrop of even more sight gags.

The film was shot in 3D — as opposed to having that technology inserted after the fact — although this added dimension adds little to the on-screen action. A minion-laced preview for next year’s Despicable Me 2 makes much better use of in-our-face 3D humor.

Theodore Shapiro’s soundtrack is appropriately giddy and comical, although not quite up to the all-stops-out orchestral craziness of Julian Nott’s work in Aardman’s many Wallace & Gromit escapades.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits is typical Aardman zaniness, which is the highest compliment. Fans will know what that means, and first-timers have a treat in store.

Johnny Depp isn’t the only cinema buccaneer who can get plenty of laughs.

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