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Review: 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits'

The Pirates is a fantastic laugh-out-loud action-adventure film for the whole family to enjoy!


Perry Chen at The Pirates! press screening (photo by Zhu Shen)

Imagine if you are a pirate with a big dream but little talent, and nobody believes you can win anything big. And, to top it off, you just entered yourself into a prestigious contest that made you a laughing stock!  That’s exactly what the Pirate Captain, the protagonist of the new Aardman/Sony animation film “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” has got himself into.  But the determination of the easy-going, gullible Captain to win the coveted “Pirate of the Year Award” takes him and his rowdy crew on an adventure of a life time!

I laughed so much as I watched the Pirate Captain and his crew traveling the globe, discovering obscure scientific wonders, competing with other more successful millionaire pirates, and fighting off the wicked Queen of England who loathes all pirates.   Along the way, the Pirate Captain meets many colorful characters, including Charles Darwin BEFORE he became famous, and Darwin’s mute chimp butler “Bobo” who brought comedic relief and more twists to the plot.  The captain couldn’t do without his loyal deputy, “Number 2,” whose smart warnings often go unheeded.

I loved the humor, there is plenty of physical comedy for younger children, and funny pop cultural references that adults enjoy, including the four “Pirate of the Year” nominees waiting in the wings, anxious for the winner announcement, just like at the Oscars. I thought that the claymation was done skillfully, all characters have such lively expressions and personality.

I noticed a lot of similarities between the lead characters of this film and “Wallace & Gromit” which were created by the same studio, Aardman in the UK.  The Pirate Captain and Wallace are both easy-going and gullible, often leading to their downfall, but both are great at adapting to their environment using their special talent: The Pirate Captain with his forest of hair and ingenious disguises, Wallace with his inventions and various contraptions to make his life easier.  “Number 2” and Gromit demonstrated undying loyalty and more smarts than their “Number 1.”

I think the addition of Darwin and the chimp is a stroke of genius, enriching the plot and adding plenty of humor.  Imagine scientists mingling with pirates, how awkward Darwin must have felt!

“The Pirates!” Lead Animator Andy Symenowski in Action (photo courtesy of Aardman Studio)

I also interviewed one of the film’s lead animators, Andy Symenowski in the UK by phone, who shared some insight on how he worked on the film. He became interested in claymation when he was young, and he always enjoyed modeling. ” Clay is a great medium”, said Andy, “you can start out with a blob, and turn it into anything you like.” Andy has 3 kids, who are 12, 9, and 7, and are very interested in animation. ” They are always begging me to set up the animation equipment at home,” said Andy,” one of my sons even used claymation for one of his school projects.” Andy said that animators always watch people and their body language, how they move and react to situations. “Children are some of the best people to watch because they are so natural. If you watch kids in your classroom listening to the teacher…if you look at them individually, they are all doing it in a slightly different way.”

Andy worked on many other Aardman animation studio’s films, including Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run.  He enjoyed all of them, and their unique challenges. Chicken Run’s challenge was that the chickens were built on short legs, and Wallace and Gromit’s challenge was that, since the characters are superstars around the world, it was exciting but nerve-wracking to try to work without making a mistake. He advises aspiring claymation artists and modelers to “always try your best; The more you work with the clay, the better you’ll get.” He also recommends “Cracking Animation” by Peter Lord (the director of The Pirate! film) about how to create claymation, and “Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, which is a guide book on animating. Finally, Andy says, “The greatest challenge of making animation is making the characters look believable. We want the audience to forget that they’re watching an animation film and enjoy the characters and the story instead.”  The most fun part is “to get a reaction from your audience, a good laugh,” and “to see the puppets come to life in front of your eyes, and to get a real performance from these characters.”

One of my favorite scenes is the extravagant entrances of the other pirates showing off their vast riches. Another one is when the Pirate Captain’s costumes fell off, one by one, as flasks of chemicals exploded at his feet. My favorite character is the Pirate Captain because he is very funny, dim-witted, but a quick thinker and loyal to his crew.  Any’s favorite character is Polly, the dodo bird, “very nice, simple, with a lot of expression in her eyes.” Andy’s favorite scene is when the Pirate Captain and his crew arrived in London, and on a stagecoach, one of the crew members said, “London smells like Grandma!” Andy always laughs when he sees that scene.

The film is adapted from Gideon Defoe‘s “The Pirates!” books. The film is the most ambitious ever from Aardman yet, with a 18-foot tall pirate ship, bigger sets, and a lot more characters.  Director Peter Lord picked his favorite character designs from anybody from Aardman who submitted, and even acted out scenes of the Pirate Captain and his crew himself for the modelers and animators.  Andy invited me to tour Aardman studio when I visit the UK next time, so that he can show me the entire set of “The Pirates!” movie!  I also look forward to getting a copy of the DVD when it comes out.

This film is full of rich, colorful characters.  The way they look and act really reflect their personality and character.  Darwin’s character is timid but smart, so he is designed as a short man with a large head. “Number 2” with a formal uniform, is intelligent, but is more of a follower who gives advice to the captain.  He looks like an admiral in the navy, unlike a pirate at all. The Pirate Captain, who is cunning, cheerful, vain, but a little too trusting, is portrayed as a tall, charismatic fellow with curly beard, dressed in a dashing red pirate suit, with a smug grin on his face. Finally, the Queen, who is short, plump, irritable, with a peculiar taste for endangered animals, likes to wear an extravagant dress and crown. She is rich beyond measures, but totally spoiled, and always shrieking about how she hates pirates.

The film is all about fame, greed, friendship, and loyalty. The Pirates, in my opinion, was the best animation film of the year, so far! But, I still found some ways that this film could improve. First of all, the chimpanzee butler was completely mute, communicating only with flashcards. I think that the film would be a lot more interesting and realistic if the chimpanzee actually made some natural ape sounds in addition to using flashcards.  I read that historically, pirates were terrible swimmers since they stay on ship most of the time.  In that case, the pirate captain would have drowned when he felt from a ghost ship.

I give “The Pirates!” 4.5 out of 5 starfish, it’s “Perrific!”  I recommend this film to kids ages 8+, since it has some rude humor, and cartoon violence. There were some “naturists” in one scene, and some mild language. The Pirates is a fantastic laugh-out-loud action-adventure film for the whole family to enjoy!

Moral: Family and friends are more important than fame and fortune.

Watch the trailer:

Copyright 2012 by Perry S. Chen


About Perry Chen:

Perry S. Chen is an 12-year-old award-winning child film critic, artist, animator, TEDx speaker, and entertainment personality, currentlyin 6th grade from San Diego.  He started reviewing movies at age 8 in 3rd grade using a kid-friendly starfish rating system, and has been featured in CBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, CCTV (China Central Television), Variety, Animation Magazine, The Young Icons, The Guardian, The China Press, etc.  He was a presenter at the 2010 Annie Awards forAnimation, and has written movie reviews for Animation WorldNetwork, San Diego Union Tribune, Amazing Kids! Magazine, and hisown Perry’s Previews blog.

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