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The pirate captain (Hugh Grant: Did You Hear About the Morgans?) is having a bad year. As the Pirate of the Year competition looms large, the good captain has little to show for his pillaging. Other pirates like Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek: Puss in Boots), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry: Tinga Tinga Tales) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven: Entourage) boast rare jewels and mountains of gold.
The pirate captain? He has a lustrous beard and a very fat parrot. He’s the joke of the pirating community and Blood Island — so named because it looks like drops of blood.
His crew doesn’t help. One is a nervous woman in disguise. One has enough wooden limbs to qualify as furniture. One has gout and a bad limp. One is a fish in a pirate’s hat. All together, this motley crew isn’t so much the scourge of the seven seas as an irritating itch. They can’t even pick a good ship to plunder.
In a last-ditch attempt to win enough booty to take the Pirate of the Year award, the captain raids what he believes to be a British bank ship. What he finds, however, is a ship filled with animal specimens collected by a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant: Fright Night). Darwin, a bit of a nerd, wins the captain’s trust by convincing him that Polly the parrot is not a morbidly obese parrot but the last living dodo.
The pirate crew switches plans, now resolving to take Polly and Darwin to London in hopes of winning the riches that come with the Royal Society’s Scientist of the Year Competition.
Alas, London is the home of Queen Victoria, who hates pirates.
A few disguises and some mishaps later, captain and crew are the targets of Queen Victoria’s wrath.
Based on Gideon Defoe’s series of comedic stories, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is tons of visual fun. Created by the claymation geniuses in Aardman Animation (Wallace and Gromit), the Pirates’ world is heavy with sight gags, set humor and stunning stop-motion animation. One chase scene is especially thrilling, as the band uses a bathtub as a toboggan to chase a thief down a multi-story staircase.
As with most Aardman films, the silent characters get most of the laughs and do most of the work, while the main characters revel in their own incompetence. In Pirates, Mr. Bobo, a monkey Darwin has trained as butler, is the comedian. He holds up cue cards to let the audience, and the pirates, know what he’s thinking. His silent, put-upon face speaks volumes.
Compared to the dithering captain, Mr. Bobo is a genius. Most bumbling leads get annoying, but this one is saved by his kind nature. He doesn’t want to harm anyone or hurt their feelings, which might explain why he’s such a failure in the marauding department.
Directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt (Chicken Run) layer adult humor into the background of a kids’ film. London and Blood Island are littered with toss-away sight gags and comedic signs that keep adults amused. Their version of a blood-thirsty Queen Victoria — she’d rather skewer pirates herself than let them hang — is one of the funnier takes on the dour monarch.
The only problem with The Pirates! Band of Misfits is its paper-thin plot. For the most part, pacing is tight and witty jokes and puns keep it moving. But when they lull, you notice just how ridiculous the story is.
Still, in a world filled with mind-numbing children’s entertainment, it’s nice to set sail with a movie that keeps adults in mind.