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Film review: 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits' is arrrrggg-right

April 30, 2012|By BOB GARVER | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • In this film image released by Sony Pictures, the cast is shown in a scene from "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."
(AP Photo/Aardman Animation for Sony Pictures Animation)

    Why does our culture treat pirates as kid-friendly characters? They're violent criminals with notoriously bad hygiene.

At least classic children's literature such as "Treasure Island" and "Peter Pan" had the decency to portray them as bad guys. But at some point they kind of became glorified.

Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise (both the ride and the films) is probably the worst offender, but I'm sure they weren't the first. I guess it's not that much different from the way outlaws in the Wild West became beloved legends, and kids are definitely notorious for imitating them.

Still, it's hard to connect with the characters in "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" when we recognize that they're such bad role models for an animated kids' movie.

Most of the pirates in the film aren't given names, they are simply listed in the credits under vague descriptions ("Pirate With a Scarf" etc.). Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) is the crew's charismatic leader, inspiring loyalty and high spirits despite his chronic inability to procure treasure.

Taking the admiration of his crew for granted, Pirate Captain aspires to win the prestigious Pirate of the Year award, thus validating his career choice. At least the award will make him less of a laughing stock amongst his fellow pirates like Cutlass Liz (voiced by Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (voiced by Jeremy Piven, a distracting casting choice for a film where the other actors are primarily from the United Kingdom).

After a series of botched robberies, fortune smiles on Pirate Captain when he tries to rob Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant). Darwin has little of value, but it turns out that Pirate Captain has something valuable to Darwin. He recognizes Polly, the ship's mascot, to be not a parrot, but in fact a dodo bird, long thought to be extinct. Darwin can use Polly to win England's Scientist of the Year Award, which Pirate Captain can then steal and use to win Pirate of the Year. It's a dodgy plan to begin with, and he has to do it all under the nose of Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton), who goes out of her way to hate pirates. Also, she has nefarious reasons for liking dodo birds.

The film is a lot of fun, probably much more than I've implied up to this point. Grant's voice performance is spirited, there are cute details around every corner, and even in an animated movie you can't go wrong dressing up a monkey in a uniform. Most of all I liked the film's action sequences, especially one set in Darwin's house filled with knickknacks from his travels. Animated comedies have this way of coming up with ridiculous uses for common objects and of course they laugh in the face of physics. And then I laugh at them for laughing in the face of physics.

"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" would have been a better film if I had found the pirates more likeable. And to its credit, the film tries to make them that way. Pirate Captain is a charming buffoon and the rest of the crew is similarly fun-loving.

There are times where it seems that all any of them want out of life is to eat ham (lots and lots of ham, unhealthy quantities of ham) with their best mates. But there are a few scenes that just negate all of their endearing qualities. It's not brought up often, but there's no doubt that the pirates have murdered people, sometimes just for fun.

This, in turn, makes Queen Victoria less antagonistic of a villain because you can't blame her for wanting to rid the world of them. If "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" had gone to greater lengths to make the pirates less morally reprehensible, I would have spent more time enjoying the film and less time wondering who to root for.



Two and a Half Stars out of Five.



"The Pirates: Band of Misfits" is rated PG for mild action, rude humor, and some offensive language. Its running time is 88 minutes.



Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.

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