Saturday, September 7, 2013

Stubs – The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Pirates! Band of Misfits aka The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012) Voices: Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Stanton, Martin Freeman, Jeremy Piven. Directed by Peter Lord. Screenplay by Gideon Defoe. Based on the book The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! By Gideon Defoe. Produced by Peter Lord, David Sproxton, Julie Lockhart. Run Time: 88 minutes. Color. U.K. /U.S. Animated Comedy

Aardman Animations is a British studio perhaps best known for Nick Park’s stop-motion animation plasticine characters Wallace and Gromit, who appeared in three theatrical shorts, one feature, one TV Series and a bunch of interstitials. The studio, founded in 1972 by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, has been producing animation for a lot longer starting off doing animated sequences for the BBC, and various other shorts, including the Peter Gabriel music video Sledgehammer.

Aardman Animation Studios in Bristol, UK.
A lot of attention fell on Aardman when shorts they produced competed against each other for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short, with Creature Comforts (1989) defeating A Grand Day Out (1989). Since then, they’ve had success on both sides of the Atlantic, producing, amongst other works, shorts: Adam (1991), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995); TV series: Creature Comforts (1989), Shaun the Sheep (2007) and Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention (2010).

Aardman's best known creations: Wallace and his dog, Gromit.
But since this is a review blog about features, it is those that are of the most interest here. Aardman’s first feature, Chicken Run (2000), co-produced with Dreamworks Animation, an homage to The Great Escape (1963), was a huge success. But unlike Pixar, another animation-only studio, Aardman didn’t have a backlog of films in various stages of production, with one ready to go every year. The studio’s follow up to Chicken Run took five years, but Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) was also a success, though not quite as big of one as Chicken Run.

It was the next film which not only ended the studio’s relationship with Dreamworks, but was also their first computer animated film, Flushed Away (2006). The film is proof that higher budgets don’t make for better movies. As opposed to the $30 million and $45 million dollar budgets for their first two features, Flushed Away cost a staggering $149 million, but only made $178 million at the Box office and received the worst reviews so far for an Aardman feature.

While Aardman’s relationship with Dreamworks ended, their experimentation with CG animation did not. With new partner, Sony Pictures Animation, Aardman made Arthur Christmas (2011). This time the budget was trimmed to $100 million, but despite a better critical reception than Flushed, Arthur made less at the box office, $147 million.

With Pirates, Aardman returns to stop-motion animation, which is their bread and butter. Loosely based on the book The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! by Gideon Defoe, published in 2004, the resulting film adaptation must have had Defoe’s blessing, since he wrote the screenplay. Renamed The Pirates! Band of Misfits for North America (because we can’t handle the truth apparently) and with some parts recast, the film was released in 2012.
If you leave everything you think you know about pirates at the door to the cinema, you’ll appreciate it more.
In 1837, Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) runs a ragtag group of pirates, who very much respect their captain, but don’t see his shortcomings as a pirate. The best thing for The Pirate Captain and his crew about being a pirate is not the plundering, but Ham Nite, in which the entire crew shares a ham for dinner.   
The Pirate Captain's crew gathers for Ham Nite; the best thing about being a pirate.
The Pirate Captain enters, as he does every year, the Pirate of the Year awards competition. He’s thinking that it’s really a numbers game and sooner or later he’s bound to win. However, it’s all about the plundering and as soon as he fills out his entry form, he is shown up by the next three contestants, all of whom arrive, making ever grandiose entries and with bigger bounties, Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Selma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), the Pirate Captain’s nemesis from the book. Black Bellamy arrives in the belly of a whale full of gold.
Black Bellamy arrives in style at the registration for Pirate of the Year.
The three other pirate captains make fun of Pirate Captain’s small bag of gold and he and his crew slink away, but with plans to up their plundering. After several unsuccessful attempts, including a ship with plague patients on board, Pirate Captain tries to talk his first mate, the Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) into moving into another line of work, selling baby clothes. But they agree to give pirating one more try.
Pirate Captain, holding Polly, isn't much of a Pirate. Note the low reward.
Enter Charles Darwin (David Tennant) aboard the Beagle. Overrun by the Pirate Captain’s crew, they find no treasure, just animals Darwin is using as part of his research. Darwin recognizes that the crew’s beloved parrot Polly is really a living dodo bird, thought to have been long extinct by then. He convinces Pirate Captain to let him take it back to England to enter the find in the Scientist of the Year competition at the Royal Academy in London. Pirate Captain is lured into the voyage because Darwin convinces him it’s a very valuable prize, despite the warning that Queen Victoria (Imelda Stanton) hates pirates. (It’s even in her royal crest.) Darwin wants to win the Scientist prize so he can impress Queen Victoria, whom he has a secret crush on.

The pirates' attempts at plundering lead them to the Beagle and Charles Darwin.
Once they’re in London, Pirate Captain and crew are introduced to Mr. Bobo, a chimpanzee that Darwin has trained to be a man-panzee, who is both is servant and co-conspirator. The conspiracy comes into play when Darwin needs Bobo’s help to steal Polly, so he can present the finding at the award show himself. This results in the chase scene that was prominent in the film’s trailer, which ends with pretty much the entire crew sharing Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate’s (Ashley Jensen) bathtub by the time it winds up in the street.
Mr. Bobo communicates using pre-printed cards.
With Polly back in his possession, Pirate Captain decides he will present the Dodo to the Scientists himself and, of course, wins. But the valuable prize turns out to be a miniscule trophy, which comes with a complete set of encyclopedias and the opportunity to meet the pirate-hating Queen. During the ceremony, Pirate Captain lets slip his true identity and is about to be put to death then and there, but at the very, very last second, the Queen spares his life. Instead, she wants Polly for herself and only the Pirate Captain knows where the bird is. Pirate Captain is given a complete pardon and wants to get away. But Darwin has been told by the Queen to get the bird back using any means necessary.

Pirate Captain and crew dressed as Scientists.
Using wine and women as a lure, Darwin gets the Captain off his ship and into a tavern, where he gets the Pirate drunk. After closing time, the Captain reveals to his new friend Darwin he’s had the bird hidden in his beard. And as soon as he does, Bobo pulls a gun and Darwin takes the bird from the Captain. Another chase ensues through London ending at the Tower of London. Darwin convinces Pirate Captain he’s trying to impress a woman, but doesn’t reveal that it is the Queen, who has been waiting. Darwin and Mr. Bobo are dismissed down a trap door and the Captain is offered gold beyond his wildest expectations for the bird.
Back aboard ship, the crew is waiting for Ham Nite to start, when the Captain arrives with his new found treasure, a whopping story on how he got it and no visible sign of Polly. They set out for Blood Island and the Pirate of the Year ceremony. There, based on the size of his bounty, the Pirate Captain is about to be awarded Pirate of the Year by the Pirate King (Brian Blessed) himself when word arrives of the Queen’s pardon and is delivered to all by none other than Black Bellamy. If he’s been pardoned, then the Pirate Captain is no longer a pirate. In addition to giving up the award, he loses his hat and coat, his pirate’s badge with the googly eyes and his booty. All he has left is his crew, which when he finally reveals that Polly wasn’t asleep in his beard as he’s been telling them all along, but was sold to Queen Victoria, he loses as well.

Pirate Captain arrives on board with lots of loot and a whopping tale.
Going back to London, Pirate Captain sells baby clothes on the street until he becomes homesick for Polly and goes to take her back from the Queen’s petting zoo. But Polly is gone. Darwin and Bobo are there and Darwin tells him that the Queen is part of an endangered species dining club, whose membership includes other world leaders. They meet aboard the QV1, the Queen’s fortress-like ship, where the Dodo is a featured dish on the menu. Pirate Captain enlists Darwin to help him rescue Polly. They steal a dirigible and take out in search of the QV1. Meanwhile, Mr. Bobo, who didn’t want any part of the rescue mission, steals a boat.

Pirate Captain and Darwin steal a dirigible to hunt down the QV1 and save Polly.
Once aboard the QV1, Pirate Captain and Darwin manage to disrupt the dinner preparation, but the Queen isn’t fooled by the Captain’s imitation of the chef and goes to the galley to investigate. The Queen proves to be a formidable foe, skilled at swordplay and despite her bustle, quite athletic. She manages to subdue Darwin and then the Captain. She is about to chop off Polly’s head when Mr. Bobo arrives out of nowhere and snatches Polly away. Mr. Bobo has brought with him the rest of Pirate Captain’s crew. Helped by Pirate with a Scarf, Pirate Captain manages to cut loose barrels of vinegar which pushes the Queen into the Baking Soda storage bin. (Of course, this ship also has separate storage bins for tar and chickens.)

Queen Victoria proves to be a formidable foe.
The rest of the pirate crew manages to subdue the world leaders. While the crew is reuniting with their Captain, the vinegar and baking soda mix, exploding with a blob like substance, which the Queen rides to snatch Polly away again. The blob, though, continues to expand and the QV1 flounders. The Queen meanwhile, steals the dirigible and tries to escape. Pirate Captain manages to snag a lead line and starts climbing up. The Queen uses the Dodo’s beak to cut the rope, until the Dodo finally fights back. The Queen’s crown punctures the balloon and the Dodo and the Captain end up falling headed for the still turning propellers of the ship, which are now sticking straight up in the air.
Pirate Captain snatches Polly as they fall from the dirigible. Will someone catch them?
At the very last possible second, the crew manages to pluck the Captain out of the air and pulls him to safety. His pardon revoked by the Queen, the Captain is once again a pirate. His crew drops Darwin off on the Galapagos Islands where he can continue his work and where he meets native women. Mr. Bobo becomes one of The Pirates and Black Bellamy has his Pirate of the Year trophy revoked by the Pirate King.

In the end, the Pirate Captain is once again a pirate in good standing.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a definite improvement from Flushed Away, but for some reason Aardman films don’t seem to do very well at the US Box office, this one garnered only $31 million in the U.S. and Canada. Not good for an animated feature. Overall, the film is quite a bit better than the trailer had led me to believe it would be. The animation is up to Aardman standards, the voice acting is very well cast and there is a very good sense of humor than runs throughout.
On the downside, the original songs don’t do much for me, but they are fairly easy to ignore if you so choose. While I used to think the Who were pretty free with their licensing of their songs (see all the CSIs), the Clash just can’t say no when asked for London Calling. It’s as if this is the only song ever written about London as it always seems to appear in any movie or TV show when London is the destination. But the music is secondary.
The script is played for laughs and not for logic. It’s a little overly convoluted and some of the laughs are situationally forced. We wouldn’t have Darwin looking like an oversized chicken if the QV1 didn’t have tar and chickens stored conveniently one above the other like it just so happens to have. But some of the writing is just short of brilliant in places with some of the funniest lines being delivered as throw away dialogue. I especially like Pirate Captain, after receiving acclaim in London telling Charles Darwin: “Do you know what I’ve discovered Charles? The friends you make, after you’ve become famous, are better, truer friends than the ones you’ve had for years beforehand.”
There are a few differences between the North American version and the UK original, besides the name change. The Albino Pirate character, voiced in our version by Anton Yelchin, is voiced by Russell Tovey in the UK version. Similarly, the Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens is voiced in the UK by Ben Whitehead and in the US by Al Roker from NBC’s Today show. I imagined the latter change was made so that it could be promoted on the morning show, similarly to Katie Couric appearing in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) as a prison guard.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a fun film and I would definitely recommend it. However, I think Chicken Run is still the best feature so far released by Aardman Animations.

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