Whatever you call it, it’s feverishly imaginative and fantastically funny, with a monstrously high ratio of ho-hos to yo-ho-hos. But when The Pirates: Band of Misfits opens in US cinemas this month it will be missing something from its British release. Scientists.
There are no scenes deleted or characters excised, and each features a wonderfully off the wall portrayal of Charles Darwin as voiced by David Tennant (either the last but one Dr Who or perhaps the finest Hamlet of a generation depending on where you’re coming from). On both sides of the Atlantic it’s exactly the same Aardman hard act to follow, with dazzling animation, an ingeniously ludicrous plot and non-stop visual and verbal punning. It’s just that in the UK, where it was made, it’s called The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists.
Which is the same title as the book by Gideon Defoe it’s adapted from. And since he also co-wrote the screenplay, and since (without giving too much of the story away) it is an adventure predominantly involving pirates and scientists, you can see the reasoning for sticking with the original. So why in the USA has “Scientists” become “Misfits”?
A spokesperson for Aardman says that Defoe's book doesn’t have “the same following outside of the UK” so there was no need to stick with the original title, whilst Hugh Grant – another actor who lends his voice to the film – claims the studio “didn't think the Americans would like the longer title.” But is there more going on here? Is it simply that scientists have become misfits – or at least a misfit with the notions about fun and entertainment you want to project when trying to attract people to a new movie? Is it still unthinkable that scientists have adventures?
At one level it seems like nit-picking. I don’t remember philosophers objecting when they were transmuted into sorcerers for the American release of the first Harry Potter film. And of course individuals and organisations realise that people who do science are important. All the signs are they are more aware than ever of the impact they make on lives, businesses, economies and the planet, whether it is receiving life-saving surgery or driving a more fuel efficient car. Surveys, such as those carried out by the US National Science Foundation find that people value science and scientists almost above all other professions.
On top of that there’s probably never been a time where we’ve had so many captivating presenters of popular science shows on television or so many broadly positive depictions of scientists in films. OK, so not all the scientists on TV are good presenters and not all the good presenters are scientists. And Hollywood remains far fonder of scientists who are geeky, freaky or downright mad that it is of ones who are normal and likeable. Still, it’s a lot better than it used to be when almost every movie scientist was crazy – either in a look-how-goofy-they-are way or a take-over-the-world way. Now at least some of the time we have scientists on our screens who you can admire and root for. Even occasionally scientists who are the heroes.
This gradual acceptance and reversal of fortunes in science is, in part I suspect, down to projects like the Science and Entertainment Exchange. This US National Academy of Science project started in 2008 and aims to link scientists and engineers with movie and television-show makers. Its ambition is to “create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV programming.” It’s this kind of project you, and frustrated scientists, can thank for more accurate – or less misleading - portrayals of science in everything from the Green Lantern and Thor to Tron Legacy and the Big Bang Theory.