- The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Directed by Tim Story. Featuring Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Salma Hayek, Brendan Gleeson and Jeremy Piven. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
"Mom, are pirates real?" came the question from my six-year-old. My lengthy answer included allusions to Somalis, online piracy and the world economy. It ended with her frustrated "yes, but where can you buy the hats?"
Disney and Johnny Depp helped resurrect the pirate theme, now a staple of birthday parties and the occasional wedding. (True: I witnessed a tubby wench/ bride and a miserable-looking fellow in pirate garb tying the knot in Las Vegas.)
Adding further fuel to piratemania are the smartypants at Aardman Productions, the folks who introduced the very funny canine-cheese loving duo of Wallace and Gromit to the world.
The story centres on a hapless pirate known as the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) whose full, luxurious beard is the only treasure in his possession. Pirate Captain isn't very good at plundering, and his failure to bring in enough booty has ensured his failure, year after year, to win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. (The ceremony is a bit like the Oscars, but with more "arrrs" in the acceptance speeches.) His chief rivals are beautiful Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Brit comedian Lenny Henry) and flashy American rival Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven).
Pirate Captain's ragtag crew includes such diverse talents as Brendon Gleeson (as The Pirate With Gout) to Al Roker (The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens). These pirates are pretty tame: while there is reference to running people through and using babies as squid bait, the only time the Pirate Captain pulls his sword out of its scabbard is to carve up the beast on the ever-popular "ham nite." Neither the crew nor Pirate Captain's loyal bird Polly seem to mind his swashbuckling shortcomings.
But then Pirate Captain boards The Beagle, Charles Darwin's ship, and Darwin (voiced by David Tennant) excitedly informs him that Polly is not big-boned, as previously thought, but is a dodo. The promise of riches in London convinces Pirate Captain to leave the relative safety of Blood Island and sail to a Scientific Conference in London, where almost certain beheading at the hands of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who has a vitriolic dislike of pirates, awaits.
The magic is in the brisk wit of the script, and the film's extensive details, which makes a second viewing desirable.
Everything from the names of the pubs to the Chinese laundry are plays on words, some quintessentially British. When Pirate Captain fills in his Pirate of the Year application, the category for "roaring" has boxes for "low", "medium" and "Brian Blessed" (referring to the big-lunged Brit actor, who is also in the movie). One scalliwag reads Ahoy! magazine, instead of Hello.
Actors have fun with the voicework, but most impressive is Aardman's trademark stop-motion animation, painstakingly executed, with fantastic results. You can feel the froth on the Pirate Captain's grog, and his pointy sword (heightened when viewed in 3D).
Gideon Defoe, author of the original book The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (the film's name was changed for North American distribution, a la the first Harry Potter), also wrote the screenplay. He has followed up this first adventure with books that include the pirates' tussles with a whale, Napoleon, and communists. Clearly, Defoe is a pretty witty guy. In one of his book's dedications Defoe thanks "Evangeline Lilly, Jennifer Garner, Julie Christie . . . Miss France 1998 and that elfin one from the first series of America's Next Top Model."
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is simply too clever to be confined to the kiddie demographic. Even the music is tailored to moms and dads: you've got to love a soundtrack that includes The Pogues, The Clash and The Beat, with "The Girl From Ipanema" thrown in for good measure, not to mention Flight of the Conchords' nonsense song "I'm Not Crying" ("I'm making lasagna . . . for one").
So grown-ups leave the theatre wondering what it would be like to work with the very cool cats at Aardman, and pondering some of the film's more sophisticated swashbuckling in-jokes.
But kids? They just want the hat.