The film performed far below expectations when first released and is generally reviewed very poorly.
Mabel Stanley (Kristy McNichol) is an introverted and bookish teenage girl from the United States in a seaside community in Australia as an exchange student. She attends a local pirate festival featuring a swordplay demonstration led by a young curly-haired instructor and fellow American (Christopher Atkins), who then invites her for a ride on his boat. She is duped by her exchange family sisters, Edith (Kate Ferguson), Kate (Rhonda Burchmore), and Isabel (Catherine Lynch), into missing the launch, so she rents a small sailboat to give chase. A sudden storm throws her overboard, and she washes up on a beach.
She subsequently dreams an adventure that takes place a century before. In this fantasy sequence, the swordplay instructor is now named Frederic, a young apprentice of the Pirates of Penzance, celebrating his 21st birthday on a pirate vessel. Frederic refuses an invitation from the Pirate King (Ted Hamilton), his adoptive father, to become a full pirate, as his birth parents were murdered by their contemporaries. Frederic swears to avenge their deaths and is forced off of the ship on a small boat.
Adrift, Frederic spies Mabel and her older sisters on a nearby island and swims to shore to greet them. In a reversal of roles, Mabel is a confident, assertive, and courageous young woman, while her sisters are prim, proper and conservative. Frederic quickly falls for Mabel and proposes marriage, but local custom requires the elder sisters to marry first.
Soon, Frederic's old mates come ashore, also looking for women and kidnap Mabel's sisters. Major-General Stanley (Bill Kerr), Mabel's father, arrives and convinces the Pirate King to free his daughters and leave in peace. The pirates anchor their ship just outside the harbour instead of actually leaving. Mabel wants Frederic to gain favour with her father so they can marry, so she plots to recover the family treasure stolen years earlier by the pirates. Unfortunately, the treasure was lost at sea, but the location where it lies was tattooed as a map on the Pirate King's back. Mabel successfully tricks the Pirate King into revealing his tattoo while Frederic sketches a copy.
The next day, Mabel and Frederic recover the stolen treasure and present it to her father. The Major-General is underwhelmed as he believes the treasure will simply be stolen again once the pirates realise it is missing. Mabel dispatches Frederic to raise an army for protection, but the Pirate King interferes. The ship nurse, Ruth, convinces them to stop fighting, reminding the Pirate King of Frederic's apprenticeship contract. Frederic's birthday is 29 February, and he is dismayed to see that the contract specifies his twenty-first birthday, rather than his twenty-first year. As his birthday occurs every four years, Frederic has celebrated only five birthdays and is still bound by contract to remain with the pirates.
That night, the pirates raid the Stanley estate, and the Pirate King orders their execution. Mabel demands a "happy ending" – admitting for the first time that she believes this all to be a dream. Everyone — even the pirates — cheers their approval, leaving the Pirate King disappointed and shocked. Mabel then confronts her father, but the Major-General is steadfast that the marriage custom remains in effect. Mabel quickly pairs each of her older sisters with a pirate, and she also pairs the Pirate King to Ruth. With Mabel and Frederic now free to marry, the fantasy sequence ends in song and dance.
Mabel awakens back on the beach to discover that she is wearing the wedding ring that Frederic had given her in her dream. At that moment, the handsome swordplay instructor arrives and lifts her to her feet. He passionately kisses Mabel, who is still shaken by her dream. She asks if his name is Frederic. He assures her that he isn't who she imagines him to be, but then carries her off to marry her, thus giving Mabel her happy ending in reality as well.Christopher Atkins as Swordplay instructor/Frederic
Kristy McNichol as Mabel Stanley
Ted Hamilton as The Pirate King
Bill Kerr as Major-General Stanley
Maggie Kirkpatrick as Ruth, the ship nurse
Garry McDonald as Sergeant/Inspector
Chuck McKinney as Samuel
Kate Ferguson as Edith
Rhonda Burchmore as Kate
Catherine Lynch as Isabel
The film was the idea of actor Ted Hamilton, who became executive producer. Richard Franklin was first announced as director but then Ken Annakin got the job, and was rushed into production when Joseph Papp announced that he was going to produce a film version of his Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance.
Principal photography was shot at the Polly Woodside at South Melbourne wharf, the Farm and Mansion at Werribee Park and Loch Ard on the Great Ocean Road Port Campbell from November 1981 to January 1982. Secondary locations in the beginning sequences after Fred invites Mabel and her friends on a boat these include Mabel walking outside McDonald's Cremorne in Sydney's North shore, The Marina scene where Mabel hires a small sail boat filmed at Rush Cutters Bay Marina in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs and finally Sydney's Most Northern Beach "Palm Beach" for some of the Beach scenes including the Pumping and a Blowin musical number.
The Pirate Movie: The Original Soundtrack From The Motion Picture was released by Polydor Records in August 1982 on vinyl and cassette.Track listing
A1 – "Victory" – The Pirates (2:37)
A2 – "First Love" – Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins (4:13)
A3 – "How Can I Live Without Her" – Christopher Atkins (3:08)
A4 – "Hold On" – Kristy McNichol (3:14)
A5 – "We Are the Pirates" – Ian Mason (3:36)
B1 – "Pumpin' and Blowin'" – Kristy McNichol (3:05)
B2 – "Stand Up and Sing" – Kool & The Gang (4:32)
B3 – "Happy Ending" – The Peter Cupples Band (4:58)
B4 – "The Chase" – Peter Sullivan and The Orchestra (1:33)
B5 – "I Am a Pirate King" – Ted Hamilton and The Pirates (2:03)
C1 – "Happy Ending" – The Cast of The Pirate Movie (4:18)
C2 – "The Chinese Battle" – Peter Sullivan and The Orchestra (2:36)
C3 – "The Modern Major General's Song" – Bill Kerr and The Cast of The Pirate Movie (2:00)
C4 – "We Are the Pirates" – The Pirates (2:18)
C5 – "Medley" – Peter Sullivan and The Orchestra (4:03)
D1 – "Tarantara" – Gary McDonald and The Policemen (1:53)
D2 – "The Duel" – Peter Sullivan and The Orchestra (4:04)
D3 – "The Sisters' Song" – The Sisters (2:42)
D4 – "Pirates, Police and Pizza" – Peter Sullivan and The Orchestra (3:32)
D5 – "Come Friends Who Plough the Sea" – Ted Hamilton and The Pirates (2:00)
The Pirate Movie was made soon after the 1980 New York City Central Park and 1981 Broadway theatre production of The Pirates of Penzance produced by Joseph Papp, which re-popularized swashbuckling pirates as a theatrical genre.
The film earned A$1,013,000 at the Australian box office. In the United States, the film grossed $7,983,086.
The film was panned by critics, as it currently holds a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 11 reviews. The Irish Times review called The Pirate Movie a "travesty" of the Gilbert and Sullivan original and said "with a philosophy of shove everything in regardless, it's nothing more than a waste of Miss McNichol's abilities, the audience's time and the incentives offered to make films in Australia." Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide rated the film as a BOMB and stated: "Not only trashes the original, but also fails on its own paltry terms. It should have been called The Rip-off Movie".TV Guide stated "Pop tunes are mixed in with some of the original G&S songs in a pirate period setting that grates on the nerves, as does the inane toilet humor that substitutes for wit. All the performers, especially McNichol, look as if they can't wait until the film is over, and one can hardly blame them." In contrast, the audience was much more forgiving, giving it a 76% audience rating. Michael and Harry Medved's book Son of Golden Turkey Awards includes The Pirate Movie's "First Love" on its list of "Worst Rock 'N Roll Lyrics in a Movie".
Australian film critic Michael Adams later included The Pirate Movie on his list of the worst ever Australian films, along with Phantom Gold, The Glenrowan Affair, Houseboat Horror, Welcome to Woop Woop, Les Patterson Saves the World and the 1987 film Pandemonium.
The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.