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I wasn’t aware of renowned (or reviled) naturalist Charles Darwin’s girl problems prior to publishing his famous book, “On the Origin of Species.”
But if the goofball comedy “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is to be believed (which I wouldn’t recommend), the lovelorn and nerdy Darwin had an awful time attracting the ladies, particularly the object of his desire, Queen Victoria herself.
Perhaps. But such is just one of the many subtle story lines in “Pirates,” the new film in theaters from Aardman Animations, the folks whose Oscar-winning stop motion animation has become famous through “Wallace & Gromit,” “Flushed Away” and “Chicken Run,” among other efforts.
And were this film judged merely on the quality of animation, Aardman would definitely merit consideration for another Oscar. The colors, sets, characters and amazing attention to detail make for a film gorgeous to behold, with so many of the jokes and parodies to be found in the intricate sets and backgrounds, it almost merits a second viewing just to see what you missed the first time.
But for most audiences, a film isn’t judged on the pretty picture alone (except in the case of “Avatar,” which made a far better painting than it did a movie). And unfortunately for “Pirates,” this “Band of Misfits” just isn’t as entertaining as it is lovely.
“Pirates” isn’t nearly as musical or funny as “Flushed Away,” and its storyline isn’t nearly as compelling as “Chicken Run.” And while it has a more subdued, British sort of corny humor, ala “Wallace & Gromit,” it isn’t half as clever as the famed window washer and his dog.
Frankly, the movie is … boring. And I like “Wallace & Gromit.”
The plot follows the Pirate Captain and his hard-luck crew, who are the laughingstock of the seven seas. But when captured naturalist Charles Darwin reveals to the Captain that his overweight parrot is really a dodo – long thought to be extinct – the Captain sees his ship’s beloved bird as his ticket to wealth, fame and esteem in the eyes of his peers.
Enter the story Queen Victoria, who has other plans for the bird, and the movie becomes a crisis of conscience for the Captain, who must choose between his friends and true self on one hand versus his ambitions on the other. Will he sell out his dodo and shipmates for a shot at the Pirate of the Year Award? And how will he make amends after making the wrong decision?
The film’s worldview is actually quite positive, warning of the dangers looming in fame’s siren call and exhorting both friendship and forgiveness. For families of youngsters who will delight in the claymation and are more apt to find the silliness funny, you could do a lot worse than “Pirates,” even among animated flicks.
Even for those creationist audiences who may be wary of Darwin’s presence as a primary character, there is little cause for concern. Darwin is portrayed prior to developing his notorious theory of evolution, as an earnest but bumbling naturalist in search of his big break.
The film has a pair of gags about Darwin’s later “discovery,” one in which a character asks if Darwin and his trained chimpanzee are “related,” while in another the Captain declares, “We didn’t evolve from slugs just to lie here and drink our own sweat, did we?”
To which Darwin replies, “Wait. What was that part about slugs?”
Those familiar with evolution will get the gags, while they needn’t worry about indoctrination in Darwinian dogma.
Besides, as Darwin falls into the innards of a steam ship, first through a vat of goo and then into the chicken coop (don’t ask how that’s possible), those who don’t care for the bard of the HMS Beagle can take guilty pleasure in watching him get … well … tarred and feathered.
- “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” contains four minor obscenities and no profanities (unless you’re concerned about blasphemy against the sea god Neptune – more about that below).
- The film contains some sexuality, mostly played for humor. The Captain attacks a ship of nudists (though nothing explicit is seen), he sings of “scantily clad mermaids,” Darwin laments being unable to get a girl, one of the crew – the “Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate” – is actually a woman disguised as a male, and one of the Captain’s rivals is a sultry Latina pirate in tight clothing who sways her assets about in a couple of scenes, including a dream sequence where she swoons and kisses the Captain. There is some minor nudity in a couple of topless mermaids who are seen from the side, and plenty of attention paid to Queen Victoria’s cleavage and rather sizable backside.
- The film is naturally loaded with cartoon, slapstick, pirate violence, from cannonballs and sword fights to crashing ships and flying objects of all sorts smacking characters upside the head. There’s some gross humor, such as burping and a leper’s arm falling off. There might be some frightening imagery in pirate skeletons hung in London’s harbor and a flaming sign of Queen Victoria holding the decapitated head of a pirate, as well as a scene in which a pirate is nearly beheaded by executioner’s axe.
- The film has a few innocuous religious references. A sign over London’s science academy reads “Playing God since 1827” (I missed the exact date). There’s a scene aboard a “ghost ship,” in which boarding pirates merely fall straight through to the sea, and the Captain’s favorite expressions of alarm are about Neptune’s anatomy – i.e. “Great Neptune’s lips!” “Neptune’s teeth!” and even “Neptune’s nostrils!” among other expressions. Neptune also makes an appearance himself as a drawing on a map that, like the other drawings, comes to life as the “ship” passes.