Let's face it the world of Hollywood pirating — with its peglegs eyepatches shoulder parrots and bounty of other swashbuckling tropes — is pretty silly. Even a high seas adventure like Pirates of the Caribbean has the ridiculous Jack Sparrow to help it hobble along. Pushing the comedy can only work in pirate movie's favor and Aardman Animation's Pirates! A Band of Misfits goes all out seizing the absurdity with a flare only British sensibilities could conjure. The film is a treasure trove of design and technical wizardry but for those less interested in the intricacies of stop motion animation Pirates!'s simple story packs plenty of low-key laughs that viewers all ages can pick up.
The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is at wit's end. While he's enjoyed his time leading a ragtag group of wannabe pirates including Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin) Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson) Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and his number two Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) a lifestyle of eating ham and barely making ends meet is losing its luster. When Pirate Captain shows up to the annual Pirate of the Year submission day he's once again outdone by Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) who rides in on a whale full of gold. Driven by competition Pirate Captain reassembles his crew hits the open waters and begins a new wave of pillaging. It's all for naught until the pirates cross paths with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who identifies Pirate Captain's "parrot" as an extinct dodo bird. Suddenly the pirates have a new (and lucrative) calling: science.
There's an unexpected intelligence to Pirates!. The movie based on a children's book of the same name centers on Pirate Captain's mid-life crisis delves into the world of 18th century science and pegs Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) as the mastermind bad guy behind the elimination of the pirate occupation. That gives the accompanying adults plenty to chew (and laugh) on but director Peter Lord doesn't stray away from an ol' fashioned slapstick routine. There's a marvelous stray bathtub sequence halfway through the film a wild ride through Charles Darwin's old tudor house that's a true spectacle. But even a simple gag involving baking soda and vinegar exploding sud bubbles is expertly crafted and executed by Lord.
The stop motion technique never feels limited in Pirates! even with a great deal of walking and talking scenes. Gideon Defoe's script is elevated by the vocal performances; Grant is perfectly cast as the faux-burly Pirate Captain while Martin Freeman's perfected "timid skeptic" routine from The Office and Sherlock is once again on full display. The Aardman team continues to have a knack for gesturing their puppets uniquely natural and human. Even with all the enormous pirate ships detailed cityscapes and dazzling action Pirates! is at its best when it focuses on the sillier calmer moments.
The tangibility of Pirates! A Band of Misfits comes through in its physical stop-motion animation techniques but also its genuine heart. There's a rare reality to the storytelling even at its most fantastical. While the film doesn't hit the same emotional chords as some of Pixar or Dreamworks' best you would need an X-marked map to find a Hollywood cartoon as sweet and heartfelt. So don't walk the plank on this one — board with kids in tow immediately.
In the tradition of a classic Disney-esque animated fairy tale The Tale of Despereaux based on the award winning children’s classic by Kate DiCamillo is about a mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) with Dumbo-sized ears and an oversized heart. His home the Kingdom of Dor was once a happy place but now due to unexpected events it has been shrouded by doom and gloom. Not for Despereaux! The fearless rodent doesn’t adhere to the usual mouse-like criteria but instead yearns for adventure especially after he starts reading fables from the castle library. He also bonds with Princess Pea (Emma Watson) who is sad and lonely her kingdom is in such disarray. Despereaux looks at her as a damsel in distress and wants to help. Unfortunately these are all serious no-nos in Mouseworld and so Despereaux is banished him to live in the dungeon with the evil Rats where he meets an agreeable rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) who is also different from his kind. Roscuro wants to right some past wrongs but is spurned by the princess. Needless to say things do indeed go awry and Despereaux must summon all his courage and bravery to save the day. Some of the best ensemble casts in movies are being assembled for animated features these days and The Tale of Despereaux is a prime example. Broderick is ideal as the dignified and ultimately courageous little mouse. Hoffman -- in his second ‘toon turn of the year (Kung Fu Panda) -- proves again as the soup-loving Roscuro he has a real future as an animated character. Harry Potter’s Watson has the perfunctory English princess role but plays it with compassion while Tracey Ullman as maid-cum-wannabe princess Mig doesn’t go for the laughs but portrays Mig as a hopeful outcast looking for a fairy tale ending to her humdrum life. A whole set of other wonderful vocal talents in Despereaux include Kevin Kline Frank Langella Richard Jenkins Stanley Tucci William H. Macy Robbie Coltrane and Christopher Lloyd. And to top it off with just the right touch of whimsy is the lilting narration of Sigourney Weaver whose comforting voice will assure the youngest kids in the audience that things in Dor aren’t quite as dire as they appear. Co-directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen invest into this gorgeous-looking film all the care that went into the art of DiCamillo’s beautiful book. In fact unlike many other recent animated features Despereaux is distinctly old-fashioned despite all the CGI. The look of the movie is definitely inspired by older more traditional Disney-style fairy tale classics. Gary Ross’ (Seabiscuit) fine screenplay is reverential to the book and doesn’t back away from the darker aspects of the story which despite its G rating might be a little on the scary side for the very young ones. For everyone else The Tale of Despereaux is most likely this season’s must-see movie event for the entire family.
A fresh update on the Pocahontas legend. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in disgrace on the shores of the New World but he is pardoned and soon rises to lead the English settlers of what will eventually be Jamestown Virginia. Sent to trade with a local chief Powhatan he falls in love with his daughter Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). He follows his duty rather than his heart and returns to Jamestown whose starving citizens would not have survived the harsh winter without Pocahontas’s help. Powhatan (Wes Studi) mounts an attack to force the settlers to leave but Pocahontas warns Smith leading to her banishment and her new life with the Europeans. Eventually Smith is called away to mount his own expeditions leaving Pocahontas behind with a heavy heart. She finds a new suitor a gentleman farmer who wants to marry her but she still pines for Smith. Her fame spreads far beyond the New World back to England where she is summoned to meet the king and queen. Farrell is finally delivering on his early promise momentarily setting aside noisy action films to work with a world-class director and reminding us just how subtle of an actor he can be. The amazing chemistry between Farrell and newcomer Kilcher puts nearly every other movie pairing this year to shame. Kilcher who had one screen credit to her name before this was only 14 during filming quite close to Pocahontas’ believed age of 12 or 13. Before you reach for that picket sign please note that while the romance is incredibly sensual as is the whole film nothing is shown other than longing looks and playful platonic embraces. As Pocahontas Kilcher radiates beauty and innocence and it’s easy to see why John Smith would be mesmerized by her. After Smith has left her scenes of grief are heartfelt and her later solemnity is remarkable for someone so young. I had no idea of her real age until I looked over the production notes. Christian Bale who only shows up in the last third of the film is wonderfully restrained and melancholy as the widower who woos her after her own loss. Terrence Malick has always been a very sensual director one who can capture nature so well that you feel you are in the film not just watching it. But his previous films such as The Thin Red Line often have a way of losing focus of missing the forest for the trees of throwing out the plot for yet another beautiful but pointless shot of the landscape. Here his narrative is strong enough that we aren’t impatient when the camera lingers on lush forests or a lovers’ embrace. He’s made the love triangle the backbone of the film and you don’t miss the larger picture here at all. The film is not only achingly beautiful but deeply felt. His sympathies are clearly with the “naturals ” as the Europeans call the Native Americans; it’s from their perspective that we first see the tall ships arrive. The Englishmen part from Smith for the most part are dirty cruel and petty and the less time the film spends with them the better. What Malick has made is most definitely still an art film with occasionally abstract or non-linear editing choices but one that is never just art for art’s sake.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.