Sometimes being a pirate isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Oh, sure, there’s the indescribable joy of hollering “Avast!” Of terrorizing the high seas. Of plundering unsuspecting galleons. Of burying booty and marking the spot with a X. But no one ever talks about the hard times, the years when pilfered treasure is in short supply. Those are waters no pirate worth his salt wants to sail through.
Pirate Captain knows all about them, though. For 20 years he and his misfit crew (Pirate With a Scarf, Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, Pirate With Gout and Albino Pirate) have pursued the ultimate pirate honor: winning the cherished title of Pirate of the Year.
Alas, their annual voyage to pirate HQ, on a remote isle in the West Indies known as Blood Island, inevitably ends in mocking futility. They’re just not “good” enough to compete with the cunning buccaneers who out-doubloon them every year: the dreaded Black Bellamy, the buxom Cutlass Liz and the peg legged terror known as, naturally, Peg Leg Hastings.
This year, however, will be different. Yes it will, insists Pirate Captain. “Let’s go plundering!” he shouts.
So he and his misfit crew get busy, attacking a ship full of plague victims … with no gold. Assailing a ship full of students on a geography field trip … with no gold. Besetting a ship full of “naturalists” … with no gold and no clothes. And, finally, besieging a ship carrying a young scientist named Charles Darwin … who, not surprisingly, doesn’t have any gold either.
It’s enough to make even an introverted pirate scream “Arrrrrrr!”
Standing at the end of the plank, however, Darwin notices that Pirate Captain’s cherished parrot, Polly, isn’t actually a parrot. Instead, she’s the world’s last remaining dodo! And if they can get that rare bird to London, the reward money should be more than enough to win the competition.
There are just two problems with that plan. OK, three. One: Darwin’s got his own plans for Polly. Two: So does Queen Victoria. Three: The queen happens to hate pirates. A lot.
The film, of course, treats the violent pirate way of life as a lark—which obviously isn’t a good thing. Within that construct, though, Pirate Captain’s crew is fiercely loyal to him.
It might not seem that way when they abandon him for a time. But even here there are points to be made: Pirate Captain has made a crucial compromise, and his crew is protesting the choice. And Pirate With a Scarf rightly tells him he can’t simply rely on pirate lingo to talk his way out of the bind he’s in. “You can’t always say ‘arrr’ at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything alright,” No. 2 admonishes.
Eventually Pirate Captain’s alienated crew returns to rescue him from the clutches of the queen (who proves to be just about as dastardly and cruel as any pirate could be). In the process, the film underscores the values of friendship and forgiveness—especially when someone temporarily trades those virtues in for the wrongheaded pursuit of fame and fortune.
Pirate Captain repeatedly makes jokes about evolution, asking, for instance, whether Darwin ever noticed how similar he and his pet monkey, Mister Bobo, look. Each time, Darwin’s face lights up a bit more, implying that he’s inching closer to formulating his signature theory. Pirate Captain also frequently utters odd biological exclamations related to mythological sea gods, such as “Neptune’s navel!” “Neptune’s teeth!” or “Poseidon’s lips!” A plaque on the queen’s wall references “royal society playing God.”
We hear that seeing “scantily clad mermaids” is one of the perks of pirate life early in the film. And then we briefly see such creatures a couple of times as the story unspools. One wears only shells on her chest. In a drawing, two appear topless (with their backs mostly turned to us).
Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate is a woman disguised as a man—complete with a giant orange beard—who has a big crush on Pirate Captain. “I’d take a jellyfish in the face for that man,” she gushes. While she’s bathing in Darwin’s house in England, several characters fall through the roof and end up in the tub with her. (She’s covered with suds, of course.) By the time the mayhem subsides, she and her tub are out in the street—with nary a towel in sight to cover up.
Cutlass Liz wears clothes that barely cover her ample features. (We see cleavage and her bare midriff.) Darwin is enchanted by singing, dancing island women whose leis and long hair are all that cover their torsos. They’re seen briefly and from a distance, as are a shipful of nudists—male and female—whose critical parts are strategically obscured by various objects and camera angles. A still picture of Pirate Captain in the credits shows him mostly without clothes in a beefcake pose.
Darwin, who is infatuated with Queen Victoria, bemoans his lack of “experience” with “kissing” women. (And the pirates mock him for it.)
A rapid-fire litany of Pirates’ slapstick silliness may be the best way to communicate its tone: An anchor falls on someone. The queen’s flagship explodes and sinks. Darwin gets tarred and feathered. A plague victim’s arm falls off. Twice, large quantities of vinegar and baking soda mingle to explosive effect. A giant whale crash-lands on the dock at Blood Island and spits out Black Bellamy.
Darwin is made to walk the plank, and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate waxes eloquent about how much she loves making victims take that last death-dealing stroll. A bathtub full of people all but demolishes Darwin’s house, plunging down several staircases with various large items (including an Easter Island head) right behind it. Captured pirates along the Thames in London hang, starving, in cages. A billboard implies that Queen Victoria will decapitate buccaneers.
The queen, it turns out, is something of a martial arts expert. An extended battle scene between her, Pirate Captain and Darwin includes quite a lot of ninja-like melee action as she wields a pair of short swords and slices at her opponents. She also delivers a frying pan to Darwin’s face, leaving his features imprinted upon it.
Less Looney Tunes is a scene in which Pirate Captain is about to be executed. Victoria changes her mind at the last minute and orders her ax man to halt: The blade stops short just inches from his neck. Elsewhere, Pirate Captain and Polly find themselves dangling dangerously close to the whirling propeller blades of the queen’s sinking ship. Nearly every time we see Cutlass Liz, she causally sticks her sword into a bystander, killing them on the spot.
Verbal allusions to violence include mentions of hangings and other executions, Pirate Captain’s fondness for stabbing people and him using “babies as squid bait.”
Darwin describes Mister Bobo as having a “gigantic unsightly arse.” Someone shouts, “Hell’s barnacles!” Mister Bobo “speaks” by way of cards with words on them: In a moment of peril, one of the cards boasts the traditional cartoon symbols indicating a profanity.
We hear a French exclamation of God’s name (“mon dieu!”) as well as the mild French interjection “zut alors” (roughly translated “darn” or “dang”). “Gosh” is said once or twice. We hear the phrases “banana butt” and “pile of crap.”
Characters drink champagne, wine and frothy mugs of beer in many scenes. Darwin uses liquor to coax Pirate Captain into divulging the secret whereabouts of Polly, getting him rip-roaring drunk. (His speech is slurred and he stumbles around.) Several visual and verbal references are made to grog. A pub sign on Blood Island reads “Gut Rot Ale.”
There’s talk of drinking sweat and Polly “weeing on the carpet.” We see the bird vomit up a piece of paper. There’s a semi-gross gag about earwax.
Upon the pirates’ arrival in England’s capital, one of them says, “London smells like Grandma.” Several characters (including a fictional Jane Austen) treat a man wearing a bag over his head (likely the Elephant Man) very rudely, including throwing things at him. Pirate Captain and his crew use several sets of disguises in London—one of which repeatedly gets the group derisively labeled as “girl scouts.”
Having seen director Peter Lord’s Chicken Run and some of the other stop-motion claymation efforts he’s produced (Wallace & Gromit, Creature Comforts), I had a pretty good idea of what to expect heading into The Pirates! Band of Misfits: incredible visual attention to detail paired with boatloads of understated British humor. And both of those elements are here in abundance, to be sure.
What I wasn’t expecting were a cameo by nudists, a perpetually drunken captain, flirtations with profanity, giggles over a woman disguising herself as a crewman, and references (verbal and visual) to executions, beheadings and hangings.
Is this the new normal for kids’ movies? Or shouldn’t I be thinking of it as a kids’ movie at all? I decided to ask Peter Lord about it in a recent interview:
“I always maintain,” he responded, “that we make films just for people. We do what entertains us as filmmakers. … Many of the animators who do the performance have little ones now. So it was constantly in my mind. I personally wouldn’t take a 4-year-old. But 6 and up, I think, is absolutely fine. And, yes, as you’ve said, it has some sexual references. But I think it’s just kind of—it’s just in the most innocent naughty way that kids like. I don’t think there’s anything they’re going to take home and shock their parents with.”
Boil all that down and the answer is, Yes, it’s the new normal for kids’ movies.
Which doesn’t mean all the old-fashioned moral lessons have suddenly disappeared. Lord accurately describes The Pirates! as being “goodhearted. … Not everyone is perfect the whole time. … But at the end, [the movie] celebrates great virtues, like family and friends. … We end up saying that family and friends are way more important than riches and fame, which are the things that lead the captain astray. And I feel happy about that.”
Me too. But my happiness, especially as a parent, is muted more than Lord’s is by all those “innocent naughty” bits.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.