Friday, May 11, 2012

No Depp, No Pirates

The animated film has really come into its own in recent years. Once an industry dominated by Disney and littered with the refuse of lesser-appealing projects, today the medium looks... remarkably less dominated by Disney. Actually, between DreamWorks Animation, Pixar (okay, it’s owned by Disney, but whatever), Sony Pictures Animation, Studio Gibli and Illumination Entertainment, among others, the world of first-rate film animation is getting much more populated, a boon for the industry. But of all the animation studios out there, only one piques my interest so much to the point that when a new film is released, I make a point of going to see it. Aardman Animation was founded in 1972 as a low-budget animation studio, but most fans know it best for its trilogy of stop-motion films featuring Wallace & Gromit, the absent-minded inventor and his silent canine companion that were released between 1989 and 1995. The series won two Oscars for Best Short Film, and 2005 sequel The Curse of the Were Rabbit was the studio’s first to win the Best Animated Film award at the 78’th Academy Awards. I still have fond memories of seeing The Wrong Trousers on PBS as a child and laughing at the antics of those two characters. Suffice it to say, I’ve generally liked Aardman’s contributions to the medium, whether it be 2000’s Chicken Run or 2011’s Arthur Christmas. The company has managed to combine a solid mix of physical humor with a dry wit, and with the film’s signature animated style, I was more than ready to take in their latest effort, whatever that may be.

You might not be able to afford a better crew... but hope springs eternal.
As it turns out, that film is The Pirates: Band of Misfits. Hugh Grant makes his animated film debut as simply-named Pirate Captain, leader of a band of amateur pirates trying to prove their worth. To that end, the Pirate Captain enters the Pirate of the Year contest, which he has failed to win in over twenty years of competing. The fact is that he is not much of a plunderer, and his repeated failures have caused weariness to settle in. When his crew captures research ship The Beagle, with a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) aboard, a startling discovery sends the crew to England, and untold riches may turn the race for Pirate of the Year in the Captain‘s favor. Still, he and his crew must avoid the eye of the dread Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and her sheer hatred of pirates; but if all goes well, the crew will be back in the Caribbean, celebrating their victory before anyone knows any better.

Yup, I'm just going to hang out with David Tennant now. Don't wait up.
Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to love Band of Misfits, I can’t help but be disappointed for two reasons. The first was the humor. Sure, the occasional witty line of dialogue is rapier sharp. Sure, the characters are largely designed to be fun to watch in action. So why isn’t this thing funnier? Well, the film really skimps on the physical humor that usually is a trademark of Aardman releases. Many of the potentially hilarious bits are hampered by the fact that they are thrown into an opening montage that doesn’t flow as well as the filmmakers thought it would. Directors Peter Lord (who hasn’t directed a film since 2000’s Chicken Run) and Jeff Newitt were obviously unsure as to what they were prepared to do, as many of their smarter ideas ended up not meaning much. For instance, Ashley Jensen plays a woman who poses as a man to serve as a pirate, complete with ridiculously fake beard. What do they do with that? Nothing. Nothing matters but the main story, and even that wasn’t as well played as the directors intended.

Don't make Queen Victoria angry... you wouldn't like her when she's angry...
Secondly, why do I get the impression that most of the film’s best ideas were stolen from similarly pirate-themed entertainment? While obviously parts were inspired by the extremely popular Pirates of the Caribbean series, I can’t help but see comparisons between Band of Misfits and the Monkey Island video game series. As I’ve expressed here in 2010 and in my Open Letters piece on the subject, I absolutely love the bawdy humor, clever storytelling, and compelling characters of the classic Lucasarts game series. So when I see a clear copycat trying to do many of the same things (and using many of the same ideas), I can’t help but feel as though I’ve been cheated somehow. Granted, this film does have some unique concepts all its own (the Pirate of the Year Award is an excellent idea, making one wonder why Ron Gilbert didn’t think of it), and pirate lore don’t exactly have a whole lot of different tales going for it. Still, I can’t be told that there’s a comically inept pirate convinced of his own superiority in popular entertainment and not think first and immediately of Guybrush Threepwood.

Occasionally there are other characters. RARELY occasionally.

The voice acting at least does its job well, though few of the actors present really do anything to distinguish themselves. Grant, who hasn’t really been relevant since the early 2000’s, proves there is still a career at 52 years of age, and his charming personality is narrowed only by the character’s limitations, and not his own. Tennant is also great, though I bet you likely wouldn’t have recognized him unless I’d told you it was him beforehand. Imelda Staunton is underused, but uses her short time wisely and to great effect. You might recognize some of the others, but Jensen, Anton Yelchin, Martin Freeman and Brendan Gleeson are sadly underutilized as the Pirate Captain’s crew, while Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek make the most of what they can as his rivals.

Hoping there's a bottle of rum on the other side!
Though a silent monkey does end up providing most of the film’s best moments (and naturally not appearing until the film’s halfway mark), there was simply not enough to like about The Pirates: Band of Misfits. Sometimes when a foreign film fails in America, it’s because they present too much for the normal American film-goer to take in, or is too far removed from the average viewer’s comfort zone. Pirates has the opposite problem, and while it’s still a decent film that you can watch with your kids, it’s certainly not up to the high standards that Aardman has set over the years. There’s still a new Nick Park film on the horizon (Park created Wallace & Gromit), so there’s still hope for the future. As it is, Pirates won’t tickle your funny bone, and for that reason alone you can simply walk away.

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