The ‘Wallace and Gromit’ crew does it again, with pirates

The Pirates! Band of Misfits. ()
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Simon Abrams

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The Pirates! Band of Misfits proves that you don’t have to behave like an adult to learn how to grow up.

It's the latest import from Aardman Studios, the British company that produces the “Wallace and Gromit” claymation cartoons. Co-directors Jeff Newitt and Peter Lord and screenwriter Gideon Defoe trust their audience to understand their film's implicit individualistic message. The movie they made is not just consistently funny, but is also mature enough to not throw its maturity in its viewers' faces.

Featuring an impressive voice cast that includes Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek and David Tennant of “Dr. Who,” Band of Misfits (originally entitled The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists), gently pokes fun at a pirate who is suffering from an identity crisis. While trying to protect an endangered species from a morally bankrupt Charles Darwin (Tennant), an eccentric pirate captain simply called "Pirate Captain" (Grant) learns how to be a good pirate. It turns out it’s not about collecting the most plunder, but is instead about being willing to act as an individual, consequences be damned.

Every year, the Pirate Captain submits an application for the Pirate of the Year Award. He's lost more than 20 times but he keeps trying anyway. He’s self-obsessed and oblivious to why he keeps falling short, even as he insists that "looting" and "cutlasses" and "scurvy" are way less relevant to the true pirating experience than the simple pleasure of eating ham with one’s crew.

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The ham-obsession is not a character-defining quirk: The captain does not lust for ham in any other scene. It’s simply understood that because the Captain prizes his ship's Ham Night over troves of gold, we see that he's not like he other pirate captains.

Unfortunately for the Captain, the Pirate of the Year Award is in fact determined based on the ability to acquire booty, and he’s no good at it. So after mistakenly plundering a ghost ship and a plague ship, among others, the Captain makes a plan with Darwin to win "untold riches" by winning a science competition. Entering this competition requires a lot more courage than brains, since the scientists hold their annual event in London, where the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) resides.

Band of Misfits’ is full of hearty and well-timed sight gags and word play, like a scene where the Captain shows Darwin where he's secreted his prize parrot Polly, who is in fact actually a dodo bird. Along the way, the Captain bumps into a couple of really mad scientists. One such egghead is foiled by a Rubik's Cube that he frustratedly chucks across the room.

When Queen Victoria corners the Pirate Captain and threatens to explain why she hates pirates, he reflexively replies, "Childhood trauma, is it? Bitten by a pirate when you were a baby?" The queen responds by saying that she hates pirates’ "out of date" brand of individualism, which she dismisses as "the romance of the sea." Victoria simply can't stomach the unrestrained freedom the pirates stand for.

It’s a nice clear concept, conveyed economically, without condescending exposition. That’s how the whole film is.

Nick Park and the rest of Aardman’s top artists have very high standards, and consequently they take a long time with their movies. The result seems to be not only quality in the animation, but in the acting and the writing—all the jokes are well thought-out. Laboring over a project doesn’t necessarily breed good results, but for Aardman’s creators, it absolutely does.

One can only hope that Band of Misfits finds the American audience it deserves.