Comfort Movie Review: Pirates of Penzance

There are a few movies out there that, to me, are pure classics, despite the fact that I recognize they might not resonate with other people nearly as well. It’s sort of like how sometimes I would honestly rather eat a bowl of Cocoa Puffs than a nice dinner out in an expensive restaurant. (More times than I should probably admit.) A fine cooked meal is fine and all, but sometimes I just want the chocolately milky crunchiness of that bowl full of cereal.

Pirates of Penzance is like that, but on film. Actually, that doesn’t really do justice to Pirates. For one thing, Cocoa Puffs weren’t made in 1879, and they haven’t stood the test of time for that huge time span. For another, Cocoa Puffs can’t really be analyzed beyond “don’t let then get too soggy.” Pirates is musically complex and has a pretty high expectation from its audience. (I would recommend only watching it with subtitles on, if you want to get the full experience.)

Written by the famed Gilbert & Sullivan team back in the 1800s, and one of their best known works, the film adapts the Broadway production from 1983, complete with almost all of the original cast. (Angela Lansbury was brought in to play Ruth, and she wasn’t from the stage production.) It’s helmed by Kevin Kline, who does such a smashing performance as the Pirate King that it carries the whole production. The movie is this strange amalgamation between a movie set and a stage set. Everything is clearly fake, but well made and consistent with its own sort of style. And somehow, it all works, mainly because the production is so full of campy fun, willing to make fun of itself and throw in physical humor to mix in with the word play of the book.

I saw Pirates of Penzance on the stage, but I can’t for the life of me remember where. I don’t know if it was on Broadway or if it was a touring company or what. I only know it was a long time ago. Long enough that my memory of it is pretty clouded, but it’s stuck with me since, and I’ve seen the Kline version many times. I will happily rewatch it when I’m feeling down. I love the music and humor of it all. And again–there’s something so spot on for me with Kevin Kline. The way he throws himself into the film and seems to be having such a good time throughout it. He won a Tony in 1981 for Best Actor in a Musical for the same role, so it makes sense. It would have been a blast to see him do it live.

Last night, I showed it to the kids, who also really enjoyed it. They were impressed that something so old could still be funny now. I’m not sure how much of that is due to Gilbert & Sullivan, and how much is from the production inserting extra touches of humor. In many ways, it’s like a good Shakespeare production. When they’re done right, the dated language just sort of fades away until you don’t even notice it anymore.

In any case, I was glad to see how much it still works for me. It’s a very Bryce movie, though I realize that might mean it’s not for everyone. The best news is that you don’t have to take my word for it. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube right this second for free. Or if you’re too lazy to look it up there, you can watch it right . . . here:

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