The Pirates! Band of Misfits is charmingly irreverent, a triumph of stop-motion animation, and a decent 3D spectacle, although I’m unable to determine which audience it’s intended for. I have a sneaking suspicion that both children and their parents or guardians will not quite know what to make of it. The former will probably respond to the bright colors (which will be even brighter in traditional 2D) and the cartoon slapstick, but it’s doubtful they will care much that two of the characters, Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin, are based on actual historical figures. Truth be told, they’re unlikely to even know who they are. The latter will in all likelihood enjoy the film’s bountiful supply of one-liners and non sequiturs, but they may object specific images that are really not meant for children, including a pirate who makes her entrance by running a man through with her sword.
But I’m taking the wrong approach, here. It should not matter what some potential audience may or may not enjoy. It should only matter what I thought of it. My opinion, after all, is the reason you’re reading this review right now. By my standards, the film is consistently funny and a visual treat. Some of its best attributes are its absurdities, some of which are mere split-second throwaway gags. This would include a pirate that’s actually a fish with a hat, a pirate that enters the scene within the mouth of a whale, and skull-and-crossbones flag equipped with googly eyes on springs. Others are found in persistent character quirks, many of which are plainly spelled out in their names. There is, for example, the Pirate with Gout (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (voiced by Ashley Jensen), who’s obviously a woman wearing a phony beard. No one catches onto this, naturally.
Adapted by Gideon Defoe from his own book The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, the film takes places in the late 1800s (a title card is literally lifted into frame, and as the camera pulls back, we quickly glimpse the face of the guy holding the card). We meet a ragtag band of pirates who are the laughing stock of the pirate community, having pillaged a pitiful stash of booty in their travels. They’re led by the aptly named Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), whose determination and enthusiasm are continuously hampered by the fact that he’s a blithering idiot. His right hand man is the Pirate with a Scarf, nicknamed Number Two (voiced by Martin Freeman). He has the brains Pirate Captain lacks and can always be counted on to clear up one of his orders. Example: When Pirate Captain orders his crew to fire those things that go bang, Number Two turns to the crew and says, “Fire the canons!”
The plot is actually twofold. In one story, Pirate Captain enters in the annual Pirate of the Year contest. This would not be the first time he has entered. He has, in fact, entered many times over the years, only to lose miserably. By his logic, his streak has been so bad that his chances of winning this year are astronomically high. But his competitors, including the lethal Cutlass Liz (voiced by Selma Hayek) and the showy Black Bellamy (voiced by Jeremy Piven), have not only amassed far more booty but have also earned the respect of the pirate community. Determined to not be a loser anymore, Pirate Captain and his crew set sail to plunder as many ships of their gold as possible. On his travels, he will unsuccessfully board a ghost ship, a ship full of children on a field trip, a nudist ship, and a ship full of plague victims (changed from leprosy following complaints from Lepra Health in Action and the World Health Organization).
In the other story, Pirate Captain crosses paths with Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant), who, along with his observations on animal anatomy, can only lament that he hasn’t yet found a girlfriend. He’s amazed to find that Pirate Captain’s parrot, Polly, is in fact not a parrot but the world’s last living dodo bird. He tells Pirate Captain of an annual science awards ceremony; if Polly is entered as an exhibit and wins, Pirate Captain deduces, his winnings should give him enough booty to win the Pirate of the Year trophy. But Darwin, along with his highly intelligent chimp manservant Mr. Bobo, plots to steal Polly in the hopes of impressing Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton), who hates pirates with a passion that borders on the psychopathic. Little does anyone know that the Queen has a plot of her own brewing.
I think the single funniest line is spoken by Pirate Captain. To repeat it in its entirety would only ruin the joke. Let’s just say that it’s delivered during what he believes to be a heroic pre-rescue speech, and that he expresses his feelings on the impossible. It comes and goes rather quickly, but I sincerely urge you to listen for it. Many such lines are delivered throughout The Pirates! Band of Misfits. They’re usually coupled by outrageous physical gags. One of my favorites is when Pirate Captain triumphantly lifts his sword into the planks above his head; we immediately hear a faint squishing sound a muffled scream. I’m not sure this is appropriate for the children who will undoubtedly want to see this film, but then again, I’m not a parent, and parents are the one that know their children the best. Who knows? They might laugh at that joke just as hard as I did.