Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (A Review)

Yup...they're pirates alright!
Aardman Animations: where to begin? When you think of quality stop motion animation, you think of these fine British blokes. Their Wallace & Gromit series is a critical and commercial smash, and their fabulous film Chicken Run might possibly be one of my favorite movies of all in that regard The Pirates! Band of Misfits (aside from also having an irritating exclamation point in the middle of it's title) has a lot to live up to. Does it reach that benchmark set by it's predecessors? Short answer, no. Long answer, no but only cause what came before it was really, really good. Longer answer: well just read the rest of the review, pal.

The film follows a pirate captain cleverly Pirate Captain (played by Hugh Grant) and his titular band of misfit pirates. The Pirate Captain, who's much too cheery to be a cut-through on the high seas, attempts to win the coveted pirate of the year competition after years and years of sucking at being a pirate. The twist here (and it really is a huge plot point that wasn't even hinted at in the trailers, so turn away now if'n ye care not for spoilers) is that they meet up with a young, lovesick Charles Darwin (surprisingly played by David Tennant, who I think should do more voice work in the future.) Darwin wants to use The Pirate Captain's pet dodo bird to win a fancy science competition and woo the pirate hating Queen Victoria (Imedla Staunton.) The plot sounds a little convoluted is. But we'll get back to that in a bit.

Right now let's start with the good: this film looks awesome. It's classic Aardman character design, with their classic insane amount of detail in each scene. The animation is charming and impressive, especially in a chase scene (something Aardman studios seem to excel at from past features) midway in the film that starts at the top of a mansion and ends up on the city streets and mostly takes place in a bathtub. That sequence alone is worth the price of admission if you ask me. It's not only very creative, but masterfully animated.

However, noticeable modern shortcuts do rear their heads, both in animation and in music. There's a notable amount of added CG elements, mostly with water and other special effects which, as a stop motion purist, I cry foul. But what can you do? Aardman has successfully dipped their toe in the CG waters with fully CG flicks like Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, so it's not like their CG division is going anywhere. And yes, animating this much spot-motion water would be really, really really, really hard/impossible. But you can't deny that even though it takes an insane amount of work compared to the compter generated route, practical effect will always be more interesting to watch and have more character then digitally added ones. Especially on a stop-motion feature like this where the GC doesn't quite match the clay art-style. But maybe I'm just being a little bit too curmudgeonly old fashioned, so I'll just move along from this issue.

Yes, water's pretty impossible to animate in stop-motion. You win this round movie.
What personally irks me a bit more is this film's liberal use of modern music. It's one thing to have present day speech and current jokes in a period setting, but for some reason if there's more then one modern rock song in a movie that takes place in a classical setting it just pulls me out of the experience. And I'm sorry, just sticking in the Flight of the Conchords song "I'm Not Crying" during a sad montage might work if you didn't know the song existed beforehand, but if you do, it just feels a little lazy.

It's Victoria Day Weekend here in Canada! Celebrate by killing a pirate!
None of these points are deal breakers for me though. I'm definitely picking at nits here, so let's dip right into the thick of this movie and talk about the characters. Hugh Grant: he's awesome. He steals the show as The Pirate Captain, bringing a loveable, ridiculous buffoonery to our central protagonist. That's both good and bad. On the good we have this awesome and loveable character fully ready for hilarity and goofy pirate gags, and on the bad he totally outshines any and all other characters in the film. The only other characters that can hope to compete is the over the top madness of Queen Victoria with her inexplicable rage-filled pirate prejudice, and possibly Charles Darwin's monkey butler (who happens to have some of the best gags of the film.) Darwin himself is decent and serves the plot well, so there's really not much to complain about there. What I do have to complain about is every other side character. The other pirates competing for pirate of the year? Bland and forgettable. One gag ponies who serve as obstacles with faces for our main protagonist. The Pirate Captain's crew? Bland and forgettable. While they all have their own visual quirks (a guy with gout, an albino, and my personal favorite, a woman in a fake beard) none of them really have any stand out personality defining character moments except for The Pirate Captain's second in command (played by Martin Freeman) with his bromance with the captain. Other then that, the titular band of misfits didn't really do anything interesting or all.

Speaking of not interesting, let's talk about their pet dodo bird. Sweet Jimmy Crickets, this bird was dull, and that's kind of a big problem. Actually, this unlikely character is the perfect example of this movie's shortcomings. Let's for a moment compare the bird from Pirates! Band of Misfits (named Polly, by the way) to Kevin, the bird from Pixar's Up.
The fight of the feathered MacGuffins!!
Both are flightless birds who serves as the main MacGuffin that both the bad guys and the good guys want to get their grubby little paws on. The deference is I cared about the outcome of Kevin when I didn't give two shits about Polly. Why? Because the acting with Kevin was so likeable. She was a character with her own personality and we, as an audience, fell in love with Kevin just as the characters did. On the other hand, we're told that Polly is the beloved mascot of the pirate ship and they all adore her. But being told we're supposed to love someone isn't enough to rouse an emotional response. Polly shows no real character, no real motivations, and is really just a dumb clueless bird. Which could be funny if it was played up or if most of the plot didn't revolve around her. But they didn't play it up, and the plot does revolve around her. When Polly is in peril, I really just don't care about her. And there in lies the major problem I have with the plot.

A band of misfits they are! But don't get attached, the movie's not about them.
As the plot goes on, we're rushed from one location to another and the main goals of the characters also change quite frequently from scene to scene. It all gets a little unfocused. Thematically, we're supposed to remember the overarching goal of The Pirate Captain winning the pirate of the year competition is what's driving all this action, but sadly the goal of keeping the Pirate Captain's ego afloat doesn't make much of an intriguing investment for an audience member. So emotionally we're supposed to remember deep down it's the Pirate Captain's connection with his beloved crew that is the important motivation for driving the action, but that also is hard when his crew (including the dull dodo) hasn't really made any connection to us, the audience. As a result, by the time we reach the story's climax there doesn't seem like there's very much as stake, which is the last thing you want to be thinking during the third act of one's movie.

Truth be told, I hate to harp on this movie. And despite my ramblings, it may surprise you that I did enjoy this film quite a bit. There were so many good jokes (and good clean jokes at that, which is so much harder to write,) the visual humour was spot on, and the gags all hit their targets. I just feel with a little more heart and soul between the characters (especially from the captain's crew, and not just his bland second in command) this movie could have been up there with Wallace & Gromit levels of awesomeness.

Hugh Grant as The Pirate Captain: hopefully we'll see him again.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a misleading title, as it deals very little with the titular band of misfits. In fact, in the UK the title is The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, and while that title is certainly odder (are arguably less marketable) than the US version, it does more accurately convey what we're going to see on the big screen. Actually, in a weird way this movie kind of feels like a sequel to a hypothetical better movie. There's so many characters that they don't spend time developing, other characters the movie assumes we already are invested in, and there's numerous mentions of bigger (possibly better) adventures this crew has been on. Aardman has gone on record staying they would like to continue this series, which would explain the odd placement of punctuation in the film's title. And frankly, I would kind of like a sequel! It would give us an even better chance to get acquainted with these characters who, I felt, didn't quite live up to their potential the first time. I think these characters would benefit even more from the episodical nature of a TV show more, but hay! Stop-motion takes a while, and a TV show would probably work their animators to death (or at least work them until their social lives were ruined.) So I say huzzah to this film! She may not be perfect, or be as memorable as her older stop-motion siblings, but this little misfit is still good enough to see with your family for a round of hardy laughs.


- Moo