The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

aka The Pirates! Band of Misfits

2018 #8
Peter Lord | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

After a foray into CGI with the decent-but-not-exceptional Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, Aardman took this adaptation of Gideon Defoe’s comedic novels as a chance to return to what they know best: stop-motion animation.

It stars a ragtag band of misfits— ugh, don’t get me started on the title change… but if you did, I might say something like the opening few paragraphs of this review. Anyway, as I was saying, it stars a ragtag crew of pirates, who are led (appropriately enough) by the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). His greatest desire is to win the Pirate of the Year Award, an honour he’s never achieved because, frankly, he’s a bit of a rubbish pirate. When he bumps into Charles Darwin (David Tennant) he stumbles upon a possible route to victory, but first he’ll have to contend with pirate-hating monarch Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

Naturally it’s a tale not so much of derring-do as of humorous shenanigans, though in truth it’s not the studio’s most hysterical offering, ticking along with a level of gentle amusement rather than outright hilarity. That said, some parts do spark considerable mirth, like a trained monkey who ‘speaks’ through word cards, and there are background gags aplenty for the keen-eyed viewer. Plus it’s all carried off with the ineffable charm of Aardman’s hand-crafted puppetry, and that goes a long way (at least for this reviewer).

Band of misfits

I’ve always thought the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (especially the first one) more-or-less nailed the tone I would’ve wanted from an adaptation of the beloved Monkey Island games, but I read a commenter somewhere say The Pirates is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Monkey Island film and, thinking about it, he’s probably right. The Monkey Island games are mostly cartoonish comedies, with a fair dose of irreverence and anachronism, and The Pirates offers up a similar brand of humour. (Maybe this is a niche comparison to make, given the height of Monkey Island’s popularity was over 25 years ago now, but, hey, these things are always ripe for rediscovery).

Despite being the fourth highest-grossing stop-motion film ever made, distributor Sony judged The Pirates to be a flop and the sequel Aardman were planning got canned. That’s a pity, because you feel this motley crew could’ve led us on another amusing adventure or two yet.

4 out of 5

Aardman’s new film, Early Man, is in UK cinemas now.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

2017 #71
Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg | 129 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge

Dead men may tell no tales, but lucrative franchises never die, so Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean has taken to the high seas once again. Johnny Depp is back in the role that once netted him an Oscar nomination (remember that?), the drunken pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, this time teaming up with the child of some old friends (Brenton Thwaites) and a bright young astronomer (Kaya Scodelario) for another MacGuffin hunt adventure, while again being pursued by some cursed seafarer (Javier Bardem) and a member of the British Navy (David Wenham).

Yes, despite the unusually-long six-year gap since the previous film, and all the promotional talk of this being a fresh start for the series that tonally harks back to the standalone fun of the first movie, Salazar’s Revenge (or, if you prefer, Dead Men Tell No Tales) seems doomed to repeat bits and bobs from the series’ other instalments. It’s not a complete wash-out, however, because it at least executes some of those bits quite well. Sadly, other bits are beginning to look a little tired. Perhaps the best single adjective to describe the film’s attitude would be “muddled”. Beware, me hearties: spoilers follow.

It seems likely that Disney do want this to be a soft reboot of the franchise — a reboot to combat the increasingly poor critical receptions that greeted the previous sequels, but a soft one so that Depp’s popular turn can continue being a part of things. This revivalist plan presumably included looking back in time, beyond the last movie (the least popular one) to the series’ heyday. However, rather than just try to replicate the tone of the earlier movies, storyliners Jeff Nathanson and franchise veteran Terry Rossio have revived some of the old plots too. So we have a film that attempts to move forward with new young leads and a new villain, all hunting for a new MacGuffin, but with motivations bedded in plots that were ostensibly wrapped up a decade ago. They can’t even bring themselves to ignore the previous movie, despite its lack of popularity, continuing narrative threads from there as well. So much for “reboot”.

Cutthroat, without the island

And yet, despite that, its consistency with previous films is sometimes poor. For example, Salazar is freed because Jack gives away his magic compass — but didn’t he do that in film two and/or three, with no such ill effects? Also, why does the compass now suddenly have the power to make you face things you dread? And how does that even work, considering other characters have had it and given it away and never had such issues? Maybe they were just hoping viewers wouldn’t remember the ins-and-outs of the plots of previous movies… though, if that’s the case, why is the story based on them?

Unfortunately, its internal consistency isn’t much better. Like, why do ghost pirates own zombie sharks? How come Salazar can suddenly possess someone when it becomes necessary for the plot? That ability is never mentioned, it just turns up. When Carina’s navigating them to the map-island, how do they end up at a completely different place (before later just setting off again)? Maybe I missed something…

This abundance of niggles stems from the film being overstuffed with ideas that it doesn’t invest in fully — just like the last film, which it was supposed to have learnt lessons from! One of the things that made the original Pirates movie work was its relative simplicity, which kept the story focused and driving forward. The sequels all throw in too much random stuff — see my previous paragraph, which isn’t even the half of it: I haven’t mentioned the witch, or the ruby-powered star map, or the nonsensical post-credits scene.

Salazar, out for revenge

It probably doesn’t help, then, that Salazar’s Revenge is the shortest Pirates film (though it doesn’t feel like it). The dearth of screen time may be why both Bardem and Wenham are ultimately wasted as the villains — they’re not working together, so the time typically afforded to the antagonist ends up split between them. Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa is back too, as much a series regular as Captain Jack now. He gets an emotional storyline that surfaces out of the blue just before the last act. It’s a nice idea, but appears too late in the game to have time to develop properly.

And how about the flashback showing Jack defeating Salazar, which seems to stop the film dead halfway through. Why not put that sequence at the start? Then cut straight to the existing opening scene of the naval ship accidentally sailing into the Devil’s Triangle. It’d work — the viewer thinking, “oh, the navy ship is going to sink, just like Salazar did all those years ago,” but then it doesn’t and Salazar attacks. (Hey, Hollywood — employ me!) Okay, fair enough, that structure would make it awkward to place Orlando Bloom’s opening cameo, but—

Oh, wait, that’s another thing! So, we know why Orlando Bloom only appears in bookend scenes and why Keira Knightley is reduced to a dialogue-less cameo — because Disney want this to be a fresh start with new stars — but it feels like, to do this particular story properly (trying to break the curse that’s imprisoning Bloom), they both should’ve been in it more. I mean, why isn’t the formerly strong and capable Elizabeth working with her son to free the love of her life? At least explain that, film, don’t just ignore it! Heck, tossing in even one line from Henry (“my mum’s given up hope, but I haven’t”) would’ve solved it.

A clever woman? What is the world coming to

As for the rest of the cast, Johnny Depp feels like he’s forgotten how to play Sparrow — it’s a pretty good imitation rather than the real thing. Kaya Scodelario plays Carina with an earnest intelligence, a trait which is exhibited dependably throughout the screenplay. That shouldn’t need to be worthy of note, but, for a female character, it is. Thwaites, on the other hand, is perfectly bland as Henry Turner, rarely even managing the enthusiasm or charming naivety suggested by that good line from the trailers (“I think I saw her ankles!”)

On the action-adventure front, there are some good set pieces, mainly early on — the bank robbery and the halted executions, particularly the spinning guillotine, are inventively handled. Sadly, later efforts are obscured by gloomy lighting and too much whizzing around of CGI — and, once again, the overabundance of out-of-nowhere ideas (why does the ship’s figurehead suddenly come to life?!) Geoff Zanelli’s score primarily recycles Hans Zimmer’s familiar themes, which I don’t mind too much because I like them. At least it does so in a less slapdash fashion than On Stranger Tides, where the music felt plonked on at random.

That's the second biggest pirate ship I've ever seen

So, I’ve moaned throughout this review, and here’s the main reason for that: there’s a decent action-adventure movie hidden in Salazar’s Revenge — probably not something that would equal the first Pirates, but a good effort — but all the times when plot necessities seem to have been filled with “invent something new!” rather than “make what we’ve got work”, plus all the little inconsistencies (both internally and with previous films), really get in the way. Maybe, now that all of the leftover business from previous films is well and truly resolved, and if this makes a lot of money, we’ll get a sixth film that finally does return to the joys of the first.

Hey, Disney: you own Lucasfilm now — how about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Secret of Monkey Island?

3 out of 5

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is in some cinemas now. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is in the others.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Captain Jack is back

Here’s the first in a sporadic new series of posts, inspired by my 100 Favourites entries, which I’ll be using to plug some of the gaps in my review archive. As a good starting example, this is the only Pirates of the Caribbean film I haven’t covered before.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 151 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th July 2006 (UK & others)
US Release: 7th July 2006
Budget: $225 million
Worldwide Gross: $1.066 billion

Stars
Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland)
Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings, Kingdom of Heaven)
Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice, The Imitation Game)
Bill Nighy (Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Director
Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Rango)

Screenwriters
Ted Elliott (The Mask of Zorro, The Lone Ranger)
Terry Rossio (Shrek, Godzilla vs. Kong)

Based on
Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme park ride at Disneyland.


The Story
On their wedding day, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are arrested for piracy. To secure a pardon, all they have to do is bring in Captain Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, the aforementioned pirate captain is hunting for a key that he can use to unlock a chest that contains leverage he may be able to use to escape a debt to the horrifying Davy Jones…

Our Heroes
Jack Sparrow (or, as half the characters pronounce it, Jack Sparrah), the pirate captain who looks like a drunken fool but is actually in possession of a sharp mind. Also Will Turner, the swashbuckling ex-blacksmith determined to prevent the execution of himself and his beloved. That would be Elizabeth Swann, the governor’s daughter who is altogether more capable than would be expected of a woman from this era.

Our Villains
The pirate-hating East India Company is represented by the scheming Cutler Beckett, who seeks to rid the seas of pirates. To do so, he intends to control Davy Jones, captain of the Flying Dutchman. A tentacled terror, Jones seeks primarily to add more damned souls to his crew — including one Jack Sparrow…

Best Supporting Character
Will Turner’s father, Bootstrap Bill, was condemned to the ocean’s depths, where he ended up committing himself to servitude on Davy Jones’ ship. Well, unless Will can find a way to set him free…

Memorable Quote
Elizabeth Swann: “There will come a time when you have a chance to do the right thing.”
Jack Sparrow: “I love those moments. I like to wave at them as they pass by.”

Memorable Scene
A large chunk of the climax is a set of interconnected sword fights that most famously include three men duelling each other inside a runaway waterwheel. And while that’s good, my favourite bit has always been Elizabeth, Pintel and Ragetti fighting off Davy Jones’ crew while sharing two swords (and a chest) between the three of them.

Truly Special Effect
Davy Jones is an incredible creation, the writing mass of CGI tentacles that make up his face conveying a slimy physicality that remains impressive even as some of the film’s other computer-generated effects begin to show their age.

Previously on…
Inspired by a Disney theme park ride, nobody expected much of Pirates of the Caribbean — or, as it was hastily subtitled once someone at Disney realised this could be the start of a franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl. As that someone knew, it turned out to be something very special. Dead Man’s Chest retrofits it into being the first part of a trilogy.

Next time…
The aforementioned trilogy concludes with At World’s End, which was shot back-to-back with Dead Man’s Chest and so wraps up its many dangling plot threads. The series continued with standalone instalment On Stranger Tides, while this year’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, aka Salazar’s Revenge, looks as if it seeks to tie the whole shebang together.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
3 Oscar nominations (Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
1 BAFTA (Special Visual Effects)
4 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Make Up & Hair)
1 Saturn award (Special Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Bill Nighy), Costume, Make-Up)
1 World Stunt Award (Best Fight — see “Memorable Scene”)

Verdict

The Pirates sequels have all come in for a lot of criticism ever since their first release. It was inevitable, really: the first is basically a perfect blockbuster action-adventure movie, something any follow-up would struggle to live up to. However, I think Dead Man’s Chest has improved with age. It lacks the freshness and elegant simplicity of its forebear, true, but it still has inventive sequences, memorable characters, impressive effects, and a generally fun tone, even as it’s setting up masses of mythology that will only be fully paid off in the next instalment. That also means it doesn’t quite function as a standalone adventure. But if you readjust your focus slightly, so that the film isn’t about beating Davy Jones, but instead about finding the chest and settling Jack’s debt to Jones, it’s more self-contained than it appears.

The fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, under whichever subtitle they’ve chosen for your country, is in cinemas from today.