By Brian Lafferty
May 4, 2012 (San Diego) – The Pirates! Band of Misfits opens with a feel-good opening sequence. The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his misfit crew pillages island after island in the Caribbean under the strains of Tenpole Tudor’s “Swords of a Thousand Men.” It’s a fitting song. The way the rah-rah and go-getting lyrics and music matched the action on-screen made me smile.
If only the film matched that energy and excitement for the film’s remaining 85 minutes.
Set during Queen Victoria’s reign, the titular crew – led by the bumbling Pirate Captain – strives for the Pirate of the Year Award, doled out to the pirate who plunders the most loot. After a series of demoralizing failed pillaging attempts, the Pirate Captain’s crew stumbles upon Charles Darwin’s ship, the Beagle. Darwin sees that what the Pirate calls a parrot is actually the last remaining Dodo. He persuades them to go to England – a dangerous place, as Victoria loathes pirates – where the specimen can win them a fortune. A series of unfortunate events transpires and ulterior motives are slowly revealed.
Even though Pirates runs only eighty-eight minutes, it feels much longer. Screenwriter Gideon Defoe – who also wrote the series of novels on which this movie is based – packs a lot of plot into the film’s short running time. It was like watching a ship filled to the max with doubloons, ready to capsize at any moment from the excessive weight. Adding to my restlessness was the dialogue-heavy script, which undermines any interest in the Claymation. Much of it may be too far advanced for little kids.
Twelve years ago director Peter Lord in Chicken Run took a simple chicken farm and transformed it into a harrowing, dark Stalag 17-style POW camp from which there seemed to be no escape from. Despite the simple design and color palette, the filmmakers created not only a whole world, but also a distinct one.
The Caribbean is known for its tropical climate, sunshine, and lush environments. The colors and light in these scenes lack these qualities. Many scenes look like they were created with a volcano erupting in the background. Industrial England doesn’t look any better, with its unattractive dark colors of blue, green, and black in the nighttime and polluted daytime colors.
The pointless, dim 3D exacerbates the already-troubled color palette. I don’t think 3D meshes well with Claymation. Claymation is a unique type of animation. In traditional animation, everything is meticulously crafted one frame at a time. When all the frames are assembled into a full movie, my eyes smoothly process all the movements.
Unlike traditional or computer animation, the characters’ movements in Claymation aren’t fluid. Whereas in computer animation, every frame is drawn on a computer, Claymation requires each character and set to be physically constructed, then molded with each movement, however slight. It takes a little bit for me to adjust to Claymation films because there will always be a tiny “gap” between each character movement and because any movement is slower than normal.
The addition of 3D throws everything into artistic turmoil. 3D is distracting enough in traditional animation. But artificially increasing the depth of field, and forcing my eyes to dart all over the place, ruins the illusion of Claymation and causes undue burden on my image processing.
Lord fires a barrage of visual gags, but many of them are trite. There’s no adventure, no excitement, and little fun.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits is now playing in wide release.
A Columbia Pictures release. Director: Peter Lord. Screenplay: Gideon Defoe, based on his book. Original Music: Theodore Shapiro. Cinematography: Charles Copping and Frank Passingham. Voice Cast: Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, and Salma Hayek. 88 minutes. Rated PG-13.