In 1980, theater producer Joseph Papp famously brought the Gilbert & Sullivan musical The Pirates of Penzance back to the stage with huge success. A film version featuring many of the original Broadway cast members would follow in 1983, but a year earlier, another film that mixed the original songs with new pop songs and modern cultural references would try to capitalize on the show’s success. It would go down in history as one of the worst films of the 80’s. Remember how pirate films were box office poison before Johnny Depp came along? Well brace yourselves for 1982’s “The Pirate Movie.”
The film begins in a modern seaside community where a somewhat nerdy teenage girl named Mabel (Kristy McNichol) is often picked on by the other girls. They all have eyes for the handsome young man (Christopher Atkins) who performs in a pirate show on the dock, and they get quite jealous when he invites Mabel on a boat ride. So the girls plot to crash the date and end up getting Mabel left behind. She follows in a small boat, but ends up going overboard and washing up unconscious on a beach.
From here, the film is all Mabel’s dream. She dreams about a ship full of pirates, ruled over by the Pirate King (Ted Hamilton). The pirates are celebrating the 21st birthday of Frederic (Atkins again), a boy they have raised since they killed his parents when he was a child. The Pirate King sees Frederic as his successor, but Frederic has decided to devote his life to hunting down pirates. So…the pirates send the boy out on a small boat to fend for himself.
He goes ashore on a nearby island where he spots Mabel (still McNichol) and her many sisters. While her sisters are very proper, Mabel is fond of shoulderless dresses with high leg cuts that would make Angelina Jolie jealous. She immediately falls for Frederic as the two sing a catchy pop tune.
The two are anxious to get married, though that’s a problem since all of Mabel’s older sisters have to wed before she can. And being that Mabel’s father is “the very model of a modern major general” (cue song here), he’s not exactly up for bending the rules. About this time, the pirates come ashore as well. This leads to a plot where Frederic can win the favor of Mabel’s father by stealing back the family treasure which the pirates stole from him years ago. To do this, they need to get a copy of the map, which is tattooed on the Pirate King’s back. So, Mabel pretends to seduce the Pirate King to get his shirt off, while Frederic draws the map from outside the window. Got all that?
There are many more songs as the film moves on, both from Gilbert & Sullivan as well as poppy new stuff. It all culminates into a big swashbuckling battle between the pirates and Mabel’s father’s forces.
It may seem like ancient film history, but there was a time when movie musicals were everywhere. They were big business! Even as late as 1978, a musical, “Grease,” was the number one film of the year. So what killed the movie musical? One could make the case that three films, “Grease 2,” “Xanadu,” and “The Pirate Movie,” may have been somewhat responsible. “The Pirate Movie” is a fantastic mess of a movie! I’ve got to give the filmmakers some credit here…I mean, it takes guts to try and mix songs that are over 100 years old, with new teeny bopper wannabe hits. Throw in references to “Star Wars,” Indiana Jones, “The Pink Panther”, and even an animated sequence, and you’ve sailed off the edge of the map and into so bad it’s good territory!
Kristy McNichol is bubbly and cute and completely over-the-top with her performance. In a strange way, it makes her performance right for all the wrong reasons. I also really enjoyed the bombastic performance of Ted Hamilton as the Pirate King. A scene stealer to say the least. Atkins, on the other hand, seems confused and unsure of what to do with himself through much of the film. This was his first film coming off the heels of his debut in “The Blue Lagoon.” The producers even get him to spend a good portion of this film wearing virtually the same loincloth costume he wore in that film.
It’s probably the musical numbers, though, that push this film over the top. Let’s put it this way, if there is ever a zombie apocalypse, the makers of this film better watch out, because zombie Gilbert & Sullivan have got their number. As for the new songs, a few of them are actually somewhat catchy. Then there are monstrosities like worst-song-title-ever nominee “Pumpin’ and Blowin’.”
Bottom line is, this is a film that must be seen to be believed. When the movie musical died in the early 80’s, “The Pirate Movie” was the one firing shots from the grassy knoll. A terrible movie that I can’t recommend highly enough.