2012. 88 minutes. Rated PG.
“You can’t just say ‘Arr’ at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything all right.”
Pirates are a hot commodity, and it is all Robert Louis Stevenson’s fault.
He wrote Treasure Island, which gave us our character reference for pirates forevermore, including pirate speak, peg legs, treasure hunting, mutinies, eye patches, walking the plank, and on and on. Without Treasure Island, we’d never have been as enamored with these blood-thirsty villains as we have been ever since. Disney would never have created a Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which never would have been made into a series of fun but awful films (except for the first one). Talk Like a Pirate Day, pirate costumes, pirate museums… all would enjoy far less success if not for Mr. Stevenson.
The latest in this long line of achievements around pirates is this entertaining animated feature, created in 3D stop motion. We have become quite blasé about the amazing look of computer animated films, which makes a film done in good old fashioned stop motion nothing short of miraculous to view. Aardman Animation, who also brought us the hilarious Chicken Run, dives straight into the world of pirates with great success.
Enter the Pirate Captain (no, seriously, that’s his only name), voiced by Hugh Grant (and you would have never, ever guessed that was his voice). His beard is curly, his hat is jaunty, his demeanor is perfect, and his crew of lovable misfits adores him. His crew includes Pirate With a Scarf (yes, again, that’s his name, voiced by Martin Freeman) as the sensible first mate, an albino and a girl masquerading as a boy pirate (much like the woman disguised at the stoning in Life of Brian. Her name is the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate), along with others. Pirate Captain is en route to enter the annual competition for Pirate of the Year, an award he has long coveted. Unfortunately, every other badass pirate in the world is also in the running, and they have piled up far more treasure. Still, only somewhat daunted, Pirate Captain sallies forth to try and stockpile more gold, but he fails miserably raiding ships of orphans and plague victims.
Enter Charles Darwin (David Tennant). (I know, right, now you are saying, “WHAT?” Bear with me.) When his boat is taken in a raid, Pirate Captain is about to toss Darwin overboard when Charles spies their “parrot,” Polly, who just happens to be the last living dodo. When Darwin mentions they can bring Polly to London and win a large prize at the Scientist of the Year competition, Pirate Captain bites. The only problem is that London is ruled by Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who has a vendetta against pirates. However, despite warnings, the crew heads to London in disguise, staying at Darwin’s house with his butler, a trained chimpanzee (man-panzee?) named Mr. Bobo, who holds up placards with words printed on them to talk (a sight gag that gets a little old, but is amusing most of the time).
To tell much more would be to give away too much of this rollicking adventure. I shall only say that Darwin tries to steal Polly in an effort to meet the queen (the prize for winning is an audience with the queen and a set of encyclopedias), whom he is hopelessly infatuated with. The fate of Polly, Darwin, Queen Victoria (who is as evil as the day is long) and the Pirate Captain are all bound together, and the story takes us to places you really can only go in animation, or in big-budgeted action films directed by Michael Bay.
The adventure is fairly nonstop, which will endlessly please the kids (and probably most of the grownups, too). However, there are so many references woven into the film for adults, it is nearly impossible to see them all. Here is a very short list of examples:
- The Pirate Captain meets the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, and Jane Austen
- One of the pirates has a Blue Peter badge on
- multiple TARDIS windows from Doctor Who are hidden throughout
- the Pirate King is dressed up as a pirate Elvis
- The Clash’s London Calling is played as the pirates sail into the harbor
And oh, I could go on for many more lines! And speaking of lines, much of the dialogue is hilarious. Some of my favorite gems include “People who live alone are always serial killers” when the pirates approach Darwin’s lit up (but empty) house, and “A real dodo! Makes electricity look like a pile of crap!” from an audience member when Polly is unveiled at the Scientist of the Year awards. I chuckled at both the dialogue and at the comic touches spread throughout (“What’s the best thing about being a pirate? Ham Night!” Then the flag with a skull and crossbones actually has hambones).
There is a great deal of action in this film. Some of it includes fight scenes, but there isn’t any blood or killing (quite un-piratelike). Characters are more likely to be hit with a frying pan than run through with a cutlass. The fights feel more like silly romps with kung-fu and explosions than bloodthirsty battles, but that suits this movie because more than anything, it is a send up of pirates, action films, stuffy British scientists and royalty, to name a few prominent ones. Sensitive children may not like the amount of action, but everyone else will welcome it.
The voice acting is spot on. Hugh Grant is terrific in range as the Pirate Captain, Martin Freeman’s Pirate with a Scarf gives the movie heart and soul, Imelda Staunton’s Victoria is a perfect sneering, cold royal, and everyone else hits the right notes as well.
Weighing in at 88 minutes, Pirates! is the perfect length for a lot to happen, yet still work in some character development. Kids will eat up the action, the cool animation, and the silliness with a soup spoon. Adults will want to come up with a new drinking game for every time they spot a TARDIS window and will giggle at the minute details and humorous signs. It’s a win-win situation. And when was the last time you saw Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin as villains? My point exactly. How can you resist watching it now?
Now excuse me, I think I need another viewing as I believe I missed a TARDIS window in that London bar scene… anyone else want to help me look?