“What’s the best bit about being a pirate?” The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) walks in on a lively debate among his crewmembers, and proceeds to instruct: it’s not the looting or the cutlasses, as much fun as these may be, and it’s not scurvy or even “scantily clad mermaids.” It is, declares the Pirate Captain, “Ham Night”—at which point he moonwalks a little and then pulls out a big-fat-pink slab of meat and has at it with his sword, so the slices fly up in the air and land perfectly on everyone’s plates, as they all ooh and aah.
Enthusiastically ridiculous, the Pirate Captain’s show sets up what’s to come in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Aardman Animation’s latest concoction. That would be a riff on pirates, as history, iconography, and perpetual industry. That’s not to say the movie makes overt fun of the almost immediately creaky Disney franchise or that it picks on the most obvious stereotypes (well, maybe, once or twice, when someone points out the Pirate Captain’s fondness for “arrgh” as a sign of his pirateness, and someone else thrusts a 3D sword at the audience). It is to say that The Pirates! incorporates a number of “best bits” into a frequently incisive contemplation of an emerging 19th-century pop culture, with jokes about Queen Victoria, Jane Austen, and the Elephant Man, not to mention elaborate stage shows and executions, stuffy British academics and astute butlers.
All this makes sense together once you see how and why the Pirate Captain’s crew—and yes, they’re motley—revere his confidence and pizazz, his good cheer and his pet parrot Polly. They’ll follow him anywhere, you see right away with the ham, even once more into the competition for the Pirate of the Year Award, given to the contestant with the most booty and presented at a big Vegas-y stage show. His crew knows he won’t win, because he never wins, but still, they go along, believing that maybe, because he believes, that this year they’ll get it together.
His Number Two, also known as the Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), does note, when they arrive at the Barnacle’s Face Bar to submit the application, that perhaps the Pirate Captain is an underdog. This as his competitors—Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry)—all arrive with loads of doubloons and fancy gear, then make mean fun of the Pirate Captain’s meager means and outrageous aspirations.
Duly embarrassed but also stubborn, the Pirate Captain heads off on his old bucket of a ship and does his buccaneery best to secure booty in the usual way. These efforts to plunder fall short, indicated in a montage of ships boarded, ships carrying lepers, ghosts, and schoolchildren on a field trip—none offering much in the way of riches. At last he comes on something that might be gold, when he lands on the Beagle, full of contraptions and occupied only by Charles Darwin (David Tennant). No gold here, but the researcher identifies Polly as the last surviving dodo. Assuring the Pirate Captain that he’ll earn academic accolades and money too, “Chuck” (as the Pirate Captain calls him), convinces him to embark to London, even as Darwin harbors his own, less than honorable, ambitions.
Never one to turn down a challenge, the Pirate Captain heads directly to London to reap the promised rewards, even though Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) has outlawed all pirates from entering the city. Here he and his crew hunker down at Chuck’s, where they meet his assistant, a “man-panzee” in a butler’s coat who can’t speak but instead holds up cards to tell what he’s thinking. As a running gag, the man-panzee is pretty predictable (“Uh-oh” comes up more than once), but as an observation of how cute creatures are perpetually manipulated and abused in family entertainments, the man-panzee is rather rich.
Such are the details that make The Pirates! something of a meta text, amusing on its own, but also referential and appreciative too. Now that being a pirate seems pretty much reduced to getting a paycheck, it’s good to be reminded of the best bits.