Plundered by Science
I’m not sure there’s ever been a more infuriating and more depressing title change for a film than how The Pirates! went from being subtitled In an Adventure with Scientists! — as it is called in the U.K., where it has been doing gangbusters business for several weeks — to Band of Misfits for its North American release. I can only imagine that America’s reputation as a land where science is frowned upon — there simply is no other postindustrial nation that is having serious ongoing public debates over whether children should be taught evolution, the backbone of biology — led Sony Pictures to believe that a film that even appears to imply that science! and scientists! could be fun! and adventurous! would be anathema.
And it’s a children’s movie! Oh noes, the kiddies! Brainwashed into thinking science is awesome! Who shall protect them from such horrors?
If such was Sony’s fear… well, then, they were right to worry. For Pirates! isn’t just a hoot and half — funny, clever, and wittily animated, basically pure delightful perfection — but perhaps the sneakiest educational film ever. Naturally there’s a motif about how friends are an excellent sort of booty, but even more insidious is the motif about how knowledge is the bestest booty of all. As in scientific knowledge. Yes, Pirates! is that sinister.
There’s the Pirate Captain, see (voiced with riotous gusto by Hugh Grant: American Dreamz, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), and he wants to win the Pirate of the Year 1836 award: he’s been entering since forever and he never wins, because his booty simply is never bodacious enough to beat that of the likes of Black Bellamy (the voice of Jeremy Piven: Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard) or Cutlass Liz (the voice of Salma Hayek: Puss in Boots, Grown Ups). But he’s got a secret weapon this year, one that he doesn’t even realize he has — I won’t spoil it for you! — which he will discover with the help of a new passenger onboard his pirate ship: Charles Darwin (the voice of David Tennant: Fright Night, How to Train Your Dragon).
Charles. Darwin. The guy who told us we’re all descended from monkeys. He hasn’t done that yet here, but what if the wee ones discover that Darwin was a real person, and not merely a sweet cartoon nerd with a monkey butler — monkey butler! hilarious! — and go off and read something he wrote? Why, it could be chaos!
Yes, Pirates! is that sinister. Hide your children.
Though it’s all based on a book by Gideon Defoe [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] (who also wrote the screenplay), Pirates of the Caribbean is what made this movie possible as a movie. Pirates are in — in America, more in than science! But it also owes much to Monty Python: there’s a silly, cheeky absurdity to the goofy claymation, another triumph from the folks at Aardman (Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit), and a glorious hint of anarchy in the anachronisms that dominate the story. It’s all rather more anachronistic than chronistic, so to speak, like the awards-show nonsense of the Pirate of the Year and the gong-show aura to the science exhibition the Pirate Captain and his crew end up crashing. (The crew includes more wonderful voice performances by a who’s who of hot British actors, including Martin Freeman [Sherlock the upcoming The Hobbit], Ashley Jensen [Arthur Christmas, Gnomeo & Juliet], Brendan Gleeson [The Raven, Safe House], and Russell Tovey [Being Human, Sherlock].)
The ideas that science is cool and knowledge is a valuable prize shouldn’t be more fitting to the 1830s than the 2010s, but there we are. I loved Pirates! completely and unreservedly, but I’m one of those devious intellectual types. I don’t even mind being descended from a monkey. So I’m probably not to be trusted.