So then, what makes a movie ridiculous? How about when it takes inspiration from one source, only to take it only as a suggestion and to run rampant with whatever other nonsense pops into its head and make stuff up along the way?
To be honest, as rare as ridiculousness is, this happens more often in comedies than in any other type of film. Specifically slapstick comedies geared for younger audiences; they are the worst offenders of the rules of ridiculousness in that it takes so much to occupy a young mind that humor – in and of itself – is never enough.
Remember my review of Pandemonium? There was a movie that was supposed to be a spoof of mad slasher flicks and ended up shoehorning in ridiculous side scenes of horses dressed as Canadian Mounties, a Japanese plane stewardess dressed like Godzilla, a breakfast scene where the father interviews his family and a prison gas chamber hooked up to a fat prisoner eating beans.
What could I say, then, about a movie that takes its inspiration from Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic operetta “The Pirates of Penzance” and shoehorns into it Stevie Wonder impressions, tired references to Star Wars and Jaws, more sped-up action scenes than in “The Benny Hill Show” and a cameo by Joan of Arc? That it’s bad? No; more than bad, it’s ridiculous.
In fact, The Pirate Movie may well be one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve seen in a while. Or at least the most ridiculous movie inspired by a comic operetta.
There is so much ridiculousness coursing through The Pirate Movie that it’s actually pretty amazing that they were able to stretch everything out to over 90 minutes of running time. For a movie like this, you expect 75 minutes… 80, tops. But yes; The Pirate Movie manages to do this, and even more – or less, if you think about it.
But what can you expect of a movie that not only tries to ape “Penzance”, but also several of the other movies released around this time that thought if it was hectic enough, it would also be funny enough?
Jekyll & Hyde…Together Again ring a bell?
I guess that explains why we have, along with such expected songs as “The Pirate King Song”, “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” and “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General”, we also get bubbly songs like “Pumpin’ And Blowin’”, “How Can I Live Without Her” and “Happy Ending” – which have as much to do with pirates and operettas as Gilbert and Sullivan have to do with this movie.
Okay, I’ll take for granted you know the basic story of “P.O.P.”, but I’ll still go ahead and explain the plot anyway: After meeting handsome young sword-fighting expert Frederic (Christopher Atkins) at a pirate ship exhibit, nerdy glass-wearing introvert Mabel (Kristy McNichol) falls hard for him – as do the retinue of bikini-clad, Australian-accented girls hanging out with her. After a boating date with Frederic is sabotaged by said girls, Mabel rents a boat to chase after them, gets caught in a storm, then washed ashore on a distant isle….
And before you can say “The rest of a movie is a dream sequence”, the rest of the movie is a dream sequence based loosely (VERY LOOSELY) on Gilbert and Sullivan’s fave rave, complete with the horny crew of the pirate ship and their hornier captain, a Pirate King (Ted Hamilton) who is prone to overly-dramatic flourishes, a Major-General (Bill Kerr) with more bluster than in all of British Parliament, and more than enough musical interludes that have NOTHING to do with piracy and more to do with empty-headed teeny-bopper love and even-more empty-headed slapstick.
Director Ken Annakin is not a slouch. far from it; this is the man who helmed the camera on Swiss Family Robinson, The Longest Day, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and Battle Of The Bulge, all of which are definitely great films. Of course, he also gave us The Biggest Bundle Of Them All, Cheaper To Keep Her and The New Adventures Of Pippi Longstocking, all of which are definitely not great films. The best thing that can be said of the direction in this film is that it is big, bright and bouncy, keeping with the general tone of ridiculousness, to be sure.
Now as far as the writing… we know that the base comes right from William S. Gilbert himself. But then we get the added material from a gent named Trevor Farrant, who has seven writing credits in all. And judging from this, it’s easy to see why: choppy dialogue, cringe-inducing lines aplenty and not enough effort in other fields. I mean, he wrote in a part for a midget pirate (Marc Colombani), but then gave him nothing to do. We have a classic peg-legged old salt with a parrot who shoots off a cannon at one point but again does nothing else of note. Then we have the boilerplate part of the jivey African-American pirate (Chuck McKinney) who doesn’t even get a chance to comment on all the stupid white people doing stupid white people things – in fact the funniest thing he does is, with the other pirates, use a battering ram to ring a mansion’s front door bell then call out, “Avon calling!”. All I’m saying is if you’re going to do funny things in your comedy, then use EVERY resource at your disposal. Don’t just show a midget, have him do funny things throughout.
Then we have the aspect of many fast-motion scenes of running, traversing ledges and swimming after pretty ladies, while others utilize swords which either break mugs with sound waves or turn into lightsabers (I don’t promise to understand it), and then then in the middle of a cast-wide swordfight a chef comes in with his pie tray and there is a pie fight… oh, but not cream pies or fruit pies, no no – that would be expected… they use pizza pies. Cute, but they could have utilized a few more pizzas, I think.
In other words, ridiculousness.
Even when trying to introduce different songs along with the expected Gil and Sull stuff, what we’re stuck with are songs about flushing pills down toilets, huffing and puffing, the moon ruling the tide and scratching and biting. And keep in mind, these are all songs about love. Nice writing, guys.
Of course, scripter Farrant not only scripted but shoved in new lines to the classic Gil and Sull songs. It’s hard to screw up something like that, you’d think, but remember we’re dealing with a movie that substitutes lines in Kerr’s “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General” song with references to The Doobie Brothers, Bo Derek, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
So The Pirate Movie is a movie about young love, but unfortunately it’s about young love between two people who amount to nothing more than walking euphemism-dispensers with the same hairstyles and physiques. Seriously; how romantic can a movie be when the love interests in question look so distressingly alike? Atkins’ permed hair makes him look more like Kristy McNichol than Kristy McNichol does, and when they kiss it’s like one or the other of them are kissing a mirror. We had this problem before in 1978 with Moment By Moment with Lily Tomlin getting all smoochy with John Travolta… the only difference this time? Instead of stereo brunettes, this time we get stereo blondes.
And it’s not like they don’t try to differentiate; McNichol spends a lot of time in a flimsy white gown with its skirt slit up past her hipbone, while Atkins struts around shirtless whilst sporting pirate-brand spandex pants. You can tell they’re trying to make the difference between boy and girl… until they get into close-ups… then you’ve got a job on your hands.
McNichol was everybody’s favorite actress growing up; she was Buddy in that classic TV show “Family”, Patricia in that other classic TV show “Apple’s Way” and even did winning turns in movies like The End and Little Darlings. Then in the Eighties, growing into a nice young lady, she appeared in The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia, Only When I Laugh, White Dog and Just The Way You Are. She could act, smile on cue, knew how to deliver a line and had good – maybe even great – comic timing. But what happened here, where her most telling acting is at the beginning when she’s decked out in over-sized glasses, a flat dorky haircut and awkward arm movements like an unsure Jerry Lewis. For the most part, she spends her time kissing everybody and stripping off various articles of clothing. Oh, and delivering lines like “Up yours too, buddy”, “My love: a wimp”, “That was a short love scene” and “It’s a real bitch”. We all know this is supposed to be a comedy, but there IS such a thing as subtlety. Unfortunately in The Pirate Movie‘s world, subtlety is lost, especially on poor Kristy.
Atkins is another matter altogether. Seeing as he’s made his mark in Hollywood by being without most of his clothes (this movie, The Blue Lagoon, A Night In Heaven), the best thing that can be said about his part here is that he plays up the innocent-minded noob well. His Frederic is so obsessed with following his heart, fighting the good fight, finding true love, blahblahblah that he comes across as the perfect character for a broad comic farce like this. Thing is, the Atkins we see here is not appreciably different than that Atkins we got before. Or since. even with over 70 parts to his name, something tells me that he doesn’t really go into most parts thinking he’s going to rent himself a tuxedo for next year’s Oscars. And judging from how fecklessly earnest, wide-eyed and doltish he plays it while watching shirtless pirates dance around, lunging and parrying against swordsmen and proclaiming his idealistic love for McNichol, chances are he didn’t bother for a tux fitting this time out, either.
I’ll be the first to give credit where it’s due, however, for the on-point performances by Hamilton as The Pirate King and Kerr as the Major-General. I had to look up Hamilton’s career and was surprised to find out that he was not only the first captain of the title craft in the initial TV movie “The Love Boat” and a very busy actor in his native Australia, but also appeared in such diverse TV series as “Division 4″, “The Six Million Dollar Man”, “Hawaii Five-O” and “Blue Thunder”. And his bravado, swagger, hearty voice and handiness with a sword makes him as much the show as anybody. In fact, I’ll go on record as saying that a much better movie could have been made just featuring him.
Kerr, it seems, had an even more illustrious career, being a familiar radio actor before jumping to TV shows like “Doctor Who” and movies like Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously. A rich voice, a face that lends itself to mugging and a decided lack of fear of looking ridiculous, Kerr falls into the world of The Pirate Movie effortlessly. As a matter of fact, seeing him bluster and fluster, dancing and sidestepping about, tossing chicken bones behind his back non-chalantly and surreptitiously sneaking drinks on the sly, his is an effortlessly amusing performance.
As is the acting by Garry McDonald, who plays one of the high-hatted policemen more familiar to the Gilbert and Sullivan audiences, does a good job as a cowardly pillar of authority good for a laugh, as well as an anarchic appearance as The Police Inspector – who is a dead ringer in appearance and voice for Inspector Jacques Clouseau. McDonald’s appearance is brief but energetic and very funny, all of which leads me to a new theory on this film….
The Pirate Movie is a showcase for secondary actors. The sisters mug and twirl their parasols, the pirates jump and fight and flex their muscles (if they have any), the obligatory army of policemen in their full Keystone Kops regalia “tarantara”-ing all over the place and the elder father figure types getting all the best lines, this is a textbook example of everybody else literally stumbling over themselves to….
Well, I’ll just go ahead and say it: this movie goes out of its way to make every other actor overact, over-move, over-emote, over-express and nearly break their own necks in order to cover the fact that the leads are so amazingly, incredibly… bland. Plain. Uninteresting. Cute, yes. But in a movie like this, cute is never enough.
And in the end, this turned out to be a cash-in on an operetta that… didn’t. The ridiculous ideas never meshed with the sights and sounds and, to be honest, we’re dealing with source material which was funny enough without having to dumb it down and make it palatable for a modern audience by adding Top 40-wannabe song and modern references. Especially NOT in the instance of misters Gilbert and Sullivan, who have had inestimable success on their own without having to update anything.
Did I like it? This is definitely one of those movies that’s either a “love-it-or-hate-it” proposition. And for me, The Pirate Movie didn’t stand a chance because it was trying to apply the Eighties to a movie that makes absolutely no sense in any context. If this was a straight-on telling of “The Pirates Of Penzance”, without new songs or dumb sight gags, it might have worked. That not being the case, what we have is a sad comedy. A tone-deaf musical. A heartless love story. A showcase that showcased the background only.
Small wonder we hear nothing from Kristy McNichol or Christopher Atkins anymore; after jumping around in less than nothing, doing less than nothing, the most they could hope for was less than what they got… which wasn’t much.
By the way, did I mention that the following year a movie was released that was the official version of “The Pirates Of Penzance”, which starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Angela Lansbury? It ended up doing no better – in fact, it ended up doing even worse than The Pirate Movie. Maybe because the lead-in for The Pirate Movie was “The Pirates Of Penzance”, while The Pirates Of Penzance‘s lead-in was The Pirate Movie. Talk about diminished expectations.
More like a sinking ship, actually. A ridiculous one.