Directors: Pete Lord and Jeff Newitt
Writer: Gideon Defoe
Cast: Brian Blessed, Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Ashley Jensen, Jeremy Piven, Al Roker, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, and Anton Yelchin
After a bit of research, I can confirm that The Pirates! Band of Misfits, is not, as I previously thought, based on a television series. Perhaps I was misled by the title, which was changed in North America from The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists presumably so as to prevent controversy from overzealous public policy groups. How the notion of scientists has become more offensive in the U.S. than that of pirates, who rape, murder, and pillage for a living, escapes me, but I digress. My point is I mistook the movie for a cartoon spinoff.
Perhaps it’s because the new subtitle, “Band of Misfits”, sounds like a cross between an HBO series and an episode of Jem and the Holograms. In fact, the claymation comedy adapts two novels by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the screenplay: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, in which sea-fairing outlaws help Charles Darwin (David Tennant) get his science cred back, and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling, in which the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) loses his crew’s trust because of his greed and ego. The mash-up proves seamless if a bit crowded as plot elements like the Pirate of the Year contest, the Scientist of the Year contest, the pet dodo, the henchman chimp, the evil queen (Imelda Stauton), and the secret gourmet society vie for our attention.
Perhaps I feel this way because of the film’s frantic pace, which seems better fitted for children’s television. Much of The Pirates! Band of Misfits plays like a half-hour sitcom stretched to feature length, what with the constant references to previous adventures and the unexplained cameos by the likes of Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), whom I figured to be recurrent characters on the series. Mind you, I did wonder how a British kids’ show scored such high-profile stars (and why the producers bothered).
Perhaps I’d see things differently if their subplots paid off. However, The Pirates! Band of Misfits delights in introducing kooky character beats only to dismiss them as part of the tapestry. Consider the thread involving the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), who keeps getting into embarrassing situations as she tries to hide her sex from the other crewmembers. Nothing ever comes of her predicament, not even an explanation as to her presence on the ship. That’s all part of the movie’s irreverent charm, of course, but I find it difficult to care about characters about whom I know little more than a running gag or two.
Perhaps my issue lies in Defoe making no effort to endear us to his characters, who, after all, consist of murderers and plunderers, a fact he never shies away from or tries to circumvent à la Pirates of the Caribbean. I especially have trouble with the Pirate Captain. We’re expected to root for the egotistical knucklehead because his crew loves him, but he does little to earn that loyalty until the final act, by which time I’d already decided Darwin’s chimp sidekick would have made a better protagonist. In fairness, Bobo is pretty awesome.
Perhaps my belief in a source television series stemmed from wishful thinking, a desire to find the film’s missing ingredient in BBC Kids’ Saturday morning lineup. The Pirates! Band of Misfits has got so much to offer, from pop culture references that prove genuinely funny (imagine that) to directors Pete Lord and Jeff Newitt’s perfect blend of classic stop-motion animation and computer-generated imagery (used for backgrounds only). I also dig the cut scenes in which the pirates’ 2-D ship travels across a 3-D map, struggling past its folds and ruffles.
For whatever reason, though, I didn’t connect with The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which is perhaps why I assumed the movie targets an audience already invested in its universe. On an intellectual level, I can fully appreciate Lord and Newitt’s artistic vision as well as Defoe’s absurdist wit (the bit with the sea monster strikes me as particularly inspired). I just can’t bring myself to care. In the end, perhaps it takes more than craftsmanship and whimsy to give a film resonance.