Nineteenth–century pirates, certainly in 21st-century pop culture, have become conduits of great absurdity. It’s amazing in our aloof, ironic times that pirates, perhaps the most straightforward of all criminals, have endeared themselves so completely that we have Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day. That these were murderous, lawless cutthroats I have no doubt, but for our purposes, they are good-hearted, unique dressers and hilarious eccentrics. I’m looking forward to when the tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition have a similarly jovial facelift. It’s this over-the-top absurdity that informs The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012), a very funny and inventive Claymation feature.
In 1837 there isn’t a more dashing profession than being a pirate captain, so it’s understandable why The Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant) would be drawn to it. However, his little ship and crew are the laughingstock of the pillaging community (his mates don’t even have the benefit of names but descriptors: There’s The Pirate with a Scarf [Martin Freeman], The Albino Pirate [Anton Yelchin], The Pirate with Gout [Brendan Gleeson] and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate [Ashley Jensen], who’s clearly a lady under a false beard [obvious but somehow effective disguises will become a theme of the movie]), and The Pirate Captain is routinely passed over at Pirate of the Year awards time by more impressive brigands like Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), who makes his entrance by emerging, flanked by gold, from the mouth of a conquered whale. Just looking at the wanted posters of the candidates explains the difference. Bellamy and his ilk are on the hook for rewards of tens of thousands of pounds; The Pirate Captain can be had for 12 doubloons and, scribbled on the sign as an added incentive, a free pen.
The Pirate Captain is tired of being a hardly ran and steels himself to change his fortunes this year. When his ship runs into the ship of a young, unheralded scientist named Charles Darwin (David Tennant), it’s discovered that the Captain’s sad-looking parrot, a source of derision from his colleagues, is not a parrot at all but a dodo bird, long thought extinct. Darwin convinces the Captain to enter the prestigious English science competition, the prize of which would gain the Captain enough gold to win Pirate of the Year, which is judged by booty.
So it’s off to London (but first a stop in northern France for some duty-free wine) and into the sphere of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who has “I Hate Pirates” engraved on her royal crest, though the focus of her ire seems to be mainly their accoutrements, their “idiotic shanties and their ridiculous huts!” In the big city, secrets are revealed that leave the Captain without friends and with no parrot, dodo, or any other bird to grace his shoulder. It seems the lovesick Darwin, terrified that his egghead demeanor will never attract a girlfriend (when briefly sent to walk the plank, his main regret is that he never made it to second base with a woman, a genuine anguish), is really after the dodo to give to the queen, a rare animal enthusiast and the object of Darwin’s affection. At the same time, the Captain becomes so blind to everything but pursuing the glory of Pirate of the Year, he loses the respect of his crew (“You know something, Charles?” he confides to Darwin. “The friends you make after you become famous are better, truer friends than the ones you’ve had for years beforehand.”)
Strung along the clothesline of the story are enough sight-gags, non sequiturs and silliness to put Monty Python to shame. The Pirates! has some of the manic energy and wry intelligence of Looney Tunes, pairing ridiculous action in which physical consequences are ignored with heartfelt temperament in which emotional consequences are not. The movie is happy to be gloriously shallow, paying just little more than lip-service to its true-to-yourself-and-your-frie
The movie is the product of Aardman Animations of “Wallace and Gromit” and Chicken Run (2000) fame, distinguished by their Claymation characters who appear to be made out of cake frosting with special emphasis on their exaggerated smiles and teeth. Though not quite as rich as the studio’s best work, it more than a little proves it’s worthiness. Here Hugh Grant makes an appealing eye of the storm, inhabiting, leading and too-often causing the mania around him. Good work out of Staunton as well as the bratty Victoria who pounds tables and stomps the ground to get what she wants. The addition of Darwin into the fray is an inspired one and generates a lot of laughs when the Captain questions whether there might be a relation between the scientist and his trained chimpanzee–butler. This is the kind of movie that is more concerned with its throwaway gags and asides than it is in its main story, but it makes those gags so good we hardly blame it.