Though a pirate-lover, I’ll confess that I never got into Talk Like a Pirate Day. But give me Errol Flynn as “Captain Blood,” Burt Lancaster as “The Crimson Pirate,” or more recently the listing port-to-starboard Johnny Depp in any of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and I’m ready to grab a tankard of hot buttered rum and sing sea chanteys.
I’m a sucker for Aardman claymation, too. So when I saw the trailer for “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” a big throaty “Harrrrrrrr” escaped me gullet, almost involuntarily.
Happily, the folks who gave us “Chicken Run” acquit themselves well on the high seas. As with all good animated features, the art design celebrates a world, and half the fun is just seeing what the artists and animators do with each scene and what little details they use to bring their quirky 1830s pirate world to life. In fact, with a plot that offers few real surprises and probably a little more convolution than is necessary, it’s the animation and the characters that make this film a sheer delight to watch. But 3D enthusiasts be warned: “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” looks as good in Blu-ray as it does 3D Blu-ray. There’s so little in the way of break-the-plane 3D effects that it hardly seems worth wearing those glasses. An eye patch, maybe—though it doesn’t take long to get in the spirit of things.
In this amiable film a pirate captain named, uh, Pirate Captain (and voiced by Hugh Grant) is well groomed but generally ineffectual as a pirate. He’s just too nice of a guy to be Pirate of the Year, though that’s the title he covets. Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) hates his guts, but that’s only because he’s a pirate and she hates all pirates who terrorize English ships. Never mind that every time he goes after booty he ends up with undergarments and such, rather than treasure. In fact, he confides in his first mate, The Pirate with the Scarf (Martin Freeman), that he’s thinking of making a living selling baby clothes instead. He’s so hapless that if he boards a ship, you can bet there won’t be anything onboard that resembles booty of the pirate kind. In fact, one of his attacks yields only Charles Darwin, who insists that the “parrot” alighting on Pirate Captains shoulder is really a dodo—the last of its kind, soon to be extinct.
As feckless as Pirate Captain can be, like the best Aardman claymation characters—with those endearingly optimistic, bulging and perfectly round eyeballs—he retains the loyalty of his men and wins us over as well. That loyalty is misplaced, of course, because the main contenders for Pirate of the Year—Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), Cutlass (Salma Hayek), and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven)—bring in gold hauls of folkloric proportions. If Tom Hanks were in this movie, he’d probably shout, “There’s no moping in piracy!” to berate Pirate Captain for the funk he falls into.
Predictably, something knocks him on-course again, and with new determination he goes after the title, but finds himself rising to another occasion. And another. The final act is full of screwball comedy tropes and Keystone Cops moments—if, that is, the Keystone Cops dressed and talked like pirates.
The Aardman gang has a lot of fun with the Darwin angle, integrating it thoroughly into the main plot and introducing a chimpanzee named Mr. Bobo and a parallel contest for scientific discoveries to add a little complexity to this otherwise straightforward narrative. In this, methinks they go too far overboard. But there’s no denying that this high seas adventure is fun family fare. What it comes down to, ultimately, isn’t the Scientist of the Year of the Pirate of the Year competitions, but the wink-wink humor and Aardman recreations of a pirate world that still holds plenty of romance and possibilities.
“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is riveting to watch, and of course it wouldn’t be so if it had wonderful art design but poor production values. This is one of the better Blu-rays I’ve seen this year. The claymation has plenty of depth regardless of whether you watch in 3D, and the textures and details are incredibly satisfying. Colors are natural looking, and edge delineation is strong despite the absence of black-line edging. Aardman likes their features looking just a little on the clay-palette side, and this one is no exception. Colors pop off the palette like fresco details on a ceiling. The MVC/MPEG-4 transfer provided zero (count ‘em) artifacts, and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is the first time that Aardman went this widescreen. It’s a good fit, so I expect to see more from them. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer on the Blu-ray is equally impressive, with the same aspect ratio.
However, people expecting break-the-plane 3D effects will be sorely disappointed. There’s depth here, but nothing in the way of wow-you 3D effects.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 options and subtitles in French, Spanish, and English. It’s an immersive audio that really spreads the sound across the front and main speakers, providing a natural flow of sound effects and dialogue. Rear effects speakers are nicely involved, especially during faux-battle scenes and instances where background music (a surprising rock menu) asserts itself but doesn’t compete with the dialogue and effects.
I’m one of those who considers the Blu-ray and DVD and UltraViolet Digital Copy bonus features on a 3D Blu-ray release, so there are already some nice things going one here. Add a contest to win a Jamaica getaway, mon, and you’re halfway there.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the bonus features are average at best. The commentary from director Peter Lord, co-director Jeff Newitt and editor Justin Krish is a bit of a sleeper, and I don’t mean that in the stock-market sense. They spend so much time on the technical aspects of the film that you’d happily run someone through with a cutlass for the chance to hear just a few more fun anecdotes about the creation of this film.
Other bonus features include “So You Want to Be a Pirate!” short film, which is an 18-minute game show spoof, a “Pirate Disguise Dress-up Game” that’s really one of those three-way match-up games (head, body, legs), a “Creating the Bath Chase Sequence” look at how one of the most difficult scenes was shot (8 min.), two Peter Lord short films (“Wat’s Pig” and “War Story”) and the best bonus feature of the lot, “From Stop to Motion” (21 min.), which details the whole process.
On the DVD there’s the game “Mr. Bobo’s Flash Card Challenge” for young viewers and a DVD-ROM (remember that?) link to other online features.
Like Pirate Captain, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is just enough of a winner to make the time you spend with him and his not-so-scurvy crew worthwhile. The Aardman folks might not have created a pirate film to rival the big screen’s best, but they’ve created a subtle parody of pirate movies that’s well worth watching.