Smooth sailing is not an option for the pirates in Peter Lord’s latest stop motion feature. They can travel across maps, think Indiana Jones’ segways, but they’re littered with traps. Pictures of gods spring to life, natives interfere, paper folds, and their pillaging attempts tend to turn sour.
It’s one of multiple running gags in Band of Misfits, the height of the film’s comedy. A lowly London fisherman inadvertently ends up on the receiving end of punishment whenever Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) hangs around the dock, and Charles Darwin is on the cusp of piecing together his evolution theory, but can’t quite get there.
Two major plot threads will find themselves entangled, the doltish Captain gunning for “Pirate of the Year” at the hands of impartial judges, and a dodo comes under siege from a pokey Queen Victoria. That dodo happens to be Captain’s parrot, or rather, he thinks it’s a parrot.
Mixed in is a young Darwin -sans beard- who is also interested in the bird, himself looking to snag a science award. The film is overloaded with awards. But, he has ulterior motives that Captain is oblivious too. If Captain figured it out, he wouldn’t be much of a character.
Band of Misfits is more memorable for the craftsmanship than any plot devices. Seeing the immensity of the miniature sets, the striking texture of metal or wood, and the complexity of the motion is a dream. Unlike most of the Burton-esque (or straight up Burton) stop motion that has become enormous, Misfits and Lord keep the universe grounded in its own little world. Caricatures of early 1800s London feel genuine, while the Queen’s motives and disregard for the planet weasel their way in to the modern political playing field.
Lord’s body of work is littered with memorable shorts and features, all with the same British sensibilities that make them so charming. It’s harmless entertainment, although in this round, not as imaginative. Something like Chicken Run is entirely his own, while Misfits comes with source material by Gideon Defoe. The translation from page to screen has lessened a lot of hallmarks of Lord’s work like small sight gags. Maybe that’s why the map is such a joy.
Digital is the lay of the land for stop motion, and thus the source for this latest British outing. That’s fine in this case, where the only negligible flub are jumpy black levels. The occasional interior cabin shot will degrade slightly, with enough of a drop to be an annoyance to some.
The rest is animated perfection, displaying the affection the crew had in their creations. Everything from cloth, to wood and those metallic objects look incredible. Despite the lack of texture on the characters themselves, the backgrounds take over and more than make up for it. Scenes within tattered halls layered with objects burst with sharpness and an appreciation for the tiniest of additions.
Saturation takes on the hue of the surroundings, the many candle-lit backdrops tinting the image a heavy orange. That monochrome approach may make sense, but in terms of the viewing, saps some of the image’s brilliance. Seeing everything on full display with a bright sky and brilliant primaries is pure bliss.
Source noise is a non-issue, and fine lines are replicated without any signs of aliasing. Sony’s encode is about all you can ask for too, introducing no artifacts while keeping the image pure and clean. Clarity is substantial, giving the piece a window-like effect into this small world of models and puppets.
That clarity translates into a solid 3D experience, one with plenty of obnoxiously dazzling things popping out at the screen because it can. Swords often feel as if they are breaking the plane of the screen, just shy of falling out of the 2.35:1 frame. Overall brightness helps in keeping the material deep sans any artifacts. Impressively, even the London nights are substantial in their dimensionality.
Generally, Pirates will not hang with the best but does produce some fun sights. Boats and their sails take over the frame, and within rooms, objects are layered to complete the effect. Without, the disc’s 3D capabilities can often appear a bit middling. Stock conversation between characters makes the characters appear a slight bit flat against limited backdrops. Minor, but an annoyance.
DTS-HD powers this surprisingly substantial audio mix with a heavy low-end that adores the chance to light up the room. Cannon fire is boisterous when the balls connect, although equally impressive as they travel. Each is prioritized in the stereos or surrounds before making their final landing. Explosions are plentiful, and chaos is peppered with traveling screams.
The highlight sequence doesn’t involve any firepower, but it does have a collapsing Easter Island head. It’s a bathtub chase through Darwin’s home, down the steps as someone tries to make off with the dodo. Objects are run into, stairwells are destroyed, and yes, a head begins following the pirates while hitting each stair with a tremendous rumble.
No doubt the track is an opportunistic one, leaping on any chance it has to impress or make itself known. Even the opening scene, a simple dialogue exchange with the queen and her navy’s general, spaces things out with a wide echo that sells the size of the hall. Great work.
Director Peter Lord joins his co-director Jeff Newitt and editor Justin Krish for a commentary. So You Want to Be a Pirate? is a short film with the characters from Misfits. A dress-up game won’t appeal to anyone over 10, but From Stop to Motion is a wonderful making-of. Seeing those sets and behind-the-scenes materials is awesome, making it easier to see how difficult these creations are.
A featurette on the challenging bath chase is quite detailed, and two additional shorts by Peter Lord offer commentaries. Sony adds a few trailers and seals this one.