The Pirates! Band of Misfits


The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Pirate Captain is ready to get you shivered, timber-wise.

(2012) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Al Roker, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen. Directed by Peter Lord

 

Pirates tend to be a churlish, loutish lot with bad tempers and bad teeth. Hey, you would be too if you spent most of your time on disease-ridden ships the size of a city bus or smaller with a bunch of evil-smelling, wretched men who are as like to cut your throat as they are to have your back – that is if they aren’t stabbing you in it. Pirates are notoriously unreliable (just ask Cap’n Jack Sparrow).

The Pirate Captain (Grant) is not quite such a bad guy but he’s all pirate. How do you know? He’s got the fattest parrot (okay, just big boned) on the high seas, a shiny cutlass and a luxuriant beard. He’s also got gleaming white teeth, a British accent, a love for shiny booty (no wisecracks) and an even greater love for ham.

What he really longs for is the recognition that comes from the Pirate of the Year award. He has thrown his bullet-holed hat in the ring for it year after year and come up short, usually losing to Black Bellamy (Piven), who knows how to make an entrance. He also has to compete with such fine black-hearted seadogs as Cutlass Liz (Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Henry). Still, with the encouragement of his right arm, the Pirate with a Scarf (Freeman) – note that the pirates on the Pirate Captain’s ship don’t get names – he thinks he has more than a fighting chance until he compares his measly pile of booty next to the mountains of shiny trinkets the others bring in.

Determined to win the prize at last, the Captain takes his crew back out for some intense pirating but with a spectacular lack of success the Pirate Captain begins to lose hope. Urged on by his number two, the Captain makes one final attempt at piracy – on what turns out to be the HMS Beagle, returning from the Galapagos with its passenger Charles Darwin (Tennant) who immediately recognizes the Captain’s parrot Polly for what she really is.

Faced with a new way to acquire the booty he needs the Pirate Captain must sail into the most dangerous waters of all – London, where Queen Victoria (Staunton) with her blind, unreasoning hatred of all things pirate, awaits. It will take all of the Captain’s skill to navigate these perilous seas and come back with the award that he so desperately wants.

Aardman studios, the madmen behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts (some of the funniest animated shorts of the past twenty years) and such features as Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas have returned to the stop motion Claymation animation style they’ve championed for years. There is a certain charm to that particular style, with the jerky movements and Aardman’s trademark toothy smiles that are more square than anything else.

Aardman movies have a distinctly British sense of humor that shares the same roots as Monty Python and the Goons, not to mention more recent varieties such as Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand. There is a quirkiness that is utterly endearing and if there are any references that only Brits would get, they’ve been excised from the American version (oddly, a couple of voice actors were replaced with Americans but the vast majority are the same).

If you didn’t know that was Hugh Grant’s voice you probably wouldn’t believe it. Gone are the trademark stammer (except in one instance) and for the most part Grant affects a deeper, more resonant voice for the Pirate Captain. Staunton does her best to make Queen Victoria sound like an annoyed man but wounds up sounding a bit like Helena Bonham Carter as Belliatrix from the Harry Potter movies. Perhaps that’s intentional.

There are some transitional animations that show the pirate ship on an animated map where they are batted around by a codgerish Neptune and blown off-course by playful cherubs. They also release red discs in the water which show up on the map, in an amusing turn (it looks funnier than it sounds). It’s little details like this that make the film stand out.

And while the silent monkey butler (with flash cards for dialogue) might come off as a bit like pandering to the younger set, the monkey – better known as Mr. Bobo, he’s still no more objectionable than the slugs in Flushed Away who were to my mind some of the best parts of that film. I would have, in fact, liked to have seen more of him.

Gideon Defoe wrote the script based on his own books The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling. The upside of this is that he knows his characters best and adapts them to the screen nicely. If there’s a downside it’s that he must have found it hard to edit himself – the movie is a little bit scattershot and seems to be going in several different directions at once. As a result, the story feels a bit rushed and non-organic at times as it gets pinballed much like the ship does on the map.

However the movie is going to appeal to adults very nicely; surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have captured the imagination of kids at least here in the States which is kind of odd – pirates usually are a big draw for them. I don’t know if it’s just that Claymation is an acquired taste in this age of CGI, but it’s kind of sad that this isn’t pulling numbers that are consistent with CGI features. Hopefully it will nab itself an Oscar nomination come next year; it’ll have some competition with Brave but quite frankly it compares favorably with the rest of the animated films out there.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky humor we’ve come to expect from Aardman. Plenty of clever recurring jokes (the monkey butler, the animated map).

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit all over the map.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence here (they’re pirates after all), a couple of naughty words and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film is animated with stop motion, but computers were used for some of the backgrounds, particularly sea and sky.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yellowbeard

CHARLES DARWIN LOVERS: Although the character is pictured as a young man, thanks to some convenient foam there is a shot of him resembling his more iconic old man visage.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Where Do We Go Now?

Flushed Away


Flushed Away

Roddy St. James wanted a couple of slugs with dinner, but this isn't what he had in mind.

(2006) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis, Shane Richie, Kathy Burke, David Suchet, Miriam Margolyes, Rachel Rawlinson, Susan Duerden, Miles Richardson.  Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell

It is no secret that a life of privilege and ease and a life of work and stress are as worlds apart as can be. Night and day doesn’t even begin to describe it. We all aspire to be in the penthouse, but generally most of us have to settle for scraps floating around in the basement.

Nowhere is this allegory more succinct than in Flushed Away. In this animated feature, a pet mouse named Roddy St. James (Jackman) lives in pampered gentility in the fashionable Kensington district of London. His home is a magnificent, plush cage with all the amenities a rodent could aspire to. Better still, when the human inhabitants leave the house, as they do frequently, Roddy gets free run of the house. Being a refined and sophisticated mouse, he looks for the right outfit for the right occasion, be it volleyball at the beach or fine dining. He has a wardrobe – well, it belongs to the dolls but it fits him nicely – and prefers the studied elegance of a tux to just about anything else in his closet.

With England gripped by World Cup fever – the finals are just a few days away, and the plucky Brits are taking on the Germans – Roddy finds there is one thing that he doesn’t have in this existence of plenty – company. He is a pampered pet, but a pet nonetheless and it is a cage where he sleeps, no matter how gilded the environment.

That all changes when the plumbing backs up a bit and out jumps Sid (Richie) from the depths below. He is a sewer rat with a cockney accent and a foul leather jacket. Sid takes one look at the new digs and decides he wants to stay permanently. Roddy is aghast at the concept, but plots to get rid of the unwelcome guest. He escorts Sid to the bathroom and offers him a nice Jacuzzi bath. Sid, being a worldly rat, is not fooled by Roddy’s weak scheme. Instead, he gives Roddy a nice push into the “Jacuzzi” and pulls the lever to activate the bubbles. Of course, Roddy is flushed down the toilet.

He winds up in the sewers, far from his beloved home. Everything is strange and unfamiliar, especially the slugs who are everywhere, squealing in high-pitched terror. Then, Roddy finds himself in a city…a copy of London made out of garbage and debris, inhabited by rats. It is a wondrous place, with peg-legged salts (whose wooden legs are made of pencil stubs) selling fish and chips…well, fish…well, it looks a lot like fish…from the harbor side. Roddy wants nothing to do with all of this, however. Like Dorothy before him, he just wants to go home.

The only ship captain brave enough to travel the dangerous waters of the sewers to the world above is a lady named Rita (Winslet), captain of the “Jammy Dodger.” She is plucky and brave, but suspicious. Seems there’s a nefarious criminal after her – one Toad (McKellan). She has something of his – well, it was hers before it was his but that’s not the way he sees it – a ruby. Roddy arrives just as a couple of his nastier henchmen – Whitey (Nighy), an ex-lab rat, and Spike (Serkis), a street-smart hooligan – come to retrieve the Toad’s property.

They wind up capturing the pair, especially since Roddy, who doesn’t care how he gets home as long as someone gets him there, sells Rita down the river. However, when Toad (as most criminal masterminds will) decides to deep-freeze them both, Rita rescues the both of them, taking a critical item that Toad wants even more than the Ruby (which is just glass, by the way) since it is central to his plans of taking over.

Once Spike, Whitey and their fellow henchmen are unsuccessful at recapturing the pair, the disgusted Toad calls in the big guns; the French super-criminal Le Frog (Reno) and his group of miming, prone-to-surrender French Frogs. In the meantime, Roddy meets Rita’s family and begins to realize just what he is missing. Still, he has to get back home and promises Rita real jewels to get him there. She may not trust him, but she is loyal to a fault, particularly when a bargain has been struck. Still, with the villainous amphibians on their trail, can they make it to the penthouse once again?

Aardman Studios, the creators of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit are responsible for this. It is their first foray into computer generated animation – they are known for their stop motion animation, which doesn’t work very well with water, which much of this movie is set on or near. They brought in veterans of Shrek to help them, and so this has the look and feel of an Aardman film without the thumbprints – although the software written for the movie actually digitally inserts imperfections into the characters to make it look more like a traditional Aardman movie.

Like most Aardman movies, Flushed Away skewers British life and frailties (although they go after other nationalities, with the ugly American tourists and the supercilious French) and carries a tremendous amount of in-jokes. For example, when Roddy is going through his wardrobe, he finds a yellow spandex outfit that looks suspiciously like what Wolverine wears in the comics (Jackman, of course, plays Wolverine in the X-Men series). A cockroach is seen reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Roddy encounters a Nemo-like clownfish in the sewers.

The real attraction here are the slugs. Although at first it looks like they’re going to be a one-joke occurrence, they settle into a role as a kind of Greek chorus, singing popular songs to emphasize various points during the movie. They never fail to amuse; in fact, every time they came onscreen, I wound up laughing, many times out loud. They’re by far the best part of the movie, not unlike Scrat the Squirrel in Ice Age. If the movie does well, don’t be surprised if we see a lot more of the slugs over the next couple of years.

The movie is well-cast, with Jackman bringing a kind of dorky charm that he displays from time to time onscreen (see Kate and Leopold). His chemistry with Winslet is surprisingly good, and Reno has a great time lampooning a character he played in Leon: The Professional. The problem I have here is a minor quibble; the story is a bit unnecessarily complex. They have this whole subplot with the ruby and then cast it aside very abruptly when Toad sets his eyes on something else. That left the ruby kind of superfluous; they’d have been better off without it and just have Toad go for the thing he really wants from the get go, instead of having to contrive for Rita to steal it. I guess they must have needed to pad the running time a bit.

Still in all, this is real entertaining for kids and their parents alike. The slugs are some of the funniest characters this year, and to my mind this is right up there with Cars and The Ant Bully as the best kids movie of the year. Considering this is an Aardman production, that’s not surprising at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all Aardman productions, this is big time quality all the way, and plenty funny for both kids and adults. The slugs are hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the British in-jokes may not necessarily play well outside of the U.K.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit crude and a few bad words, but otherwise suitable for most kids and certainly all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert DeNiro and William Shatner were also considered for the part that eventually went to Andy Serkis.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of extra slug songs. There is also a pipes maze in a fair-to-middlin’ kids section.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on a production budget of $149M. The movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ninja Assassin