Ink & Pixel: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I'm always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fanbase, Ink & Pixel has been granted permission to broaden its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy genres. I hope that you enjoy this bold new direction for the column. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

Yarg! Ahoy fellow animation enthusiasts; ye had best steel yourselves for another journey into the unknown aboard the great ship Ink & Pixel. I don't know about you, but I've always been a big fan of Hollywood's portrayal of pirates throughout cinematic history. I'm not talking about the awful kind that terrorize areas of the world like Sumatra and Somalia, of course – I'm talking about the swashbuckling, Dread Pirate Roberts kind. As thieves on the seven seas, pirates have always carried with them an air of romance, have they not? They're married to the ocean, are storytellers of beauty and beast from the briny deep, and carry with them a deep and abiding respect for adventure. There's no doubt that pirates have always made for a fascinating lot when creating fiction to be shared on the silver screen, so why don't we dive a bit deeper and see what they're all about?

Piracy – in reference to the act of committing violence and thievery whilst upon the open seas – began over 2000 years ago, when bands of hardened individuals would invade and threaten the trade routes of Ancient Greece. Armed with sharp swords, molotov cocktails, and cannons, pirate ships would often attack trade vessels in an effort to commandeer goods such as: grains, oils, and any other profitable spoils. In essence, pirates haunted the waterways of early civilization, particularly from the years 1620 to 1720 – a time that is often referred to as the golden age of piracy.

Over time, pirates have been portrayed on film in a multitude of ways. In Steven Spielberg's THE GOONIES, a group of kids ventured underground in search of the long-lost treasure of One-Eyed-Willy, in 1952, Errol Flynn clashed swords with Maureen O'Hara in AGAINST ALL FLAGS, and more recently, Johnny Depp's capered his way through a total of four PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films (with a fifth installment currently underway). The bottom line, you ask? Hollywood loves making movies about pirates, and in this week's article we'll be looking at the stop-motion animated film, THE PIRATES! A BAND OF MISSFITS. Are you ready to walk the plank?

Released in March of 2012, THE PIRATES! A BAND OF MISSFITS is a 3D stop-motion animated action comedy from Aardman Animations and Sony Pictures Animation. Directed by Peter Lord (CHICKEN RUN, FLUSHED AWAY), with co-direction by Jeff Newitt (EDWARD AND FRIENDS, WALLACE & GROMIT), the film is based on the novel The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe. Set in the year 1837, the film tells the story of a sea-faring pirate captain named … well, Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). Along with his band of misfit marauders, Pirate Captain is once again aiming to enter into the annual Pirate of the Year contest. The rules of which are simple: whomever plunders the most booty by the end of the competition, wins.

While sailing the open seas in search of gold and other rarities, Pirate Captain and his crew stumble upon the good ship Beagle – where the famous naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin (David Tennant) is found and captured. Shortly thereafter, while aboard the Pirate Captain's ship, Darwin discovers that the ship's mascot is in fact a dodo bird – thought to be extinct throughout the world for quite some time. Upon his discovery, Darwin implores Pirate Captain to re-direct his ship and plot a course for London, England – where he can then use the elusive bird as his entry into the annual Scientist of the Year competition. There's just one thing standing between them and their dream of becoming world famous and showered with riches: England is ruled by Queen Victoria, and you can bet your boot-straps that she hates pirates!

In my time spent writing for Joblo, I've dedicated much of it to researching a wide array of different styles of animation. My favorite, and I say this without a breath of hesitation, is stop-motion. That said, one of the most common misconceptions about the filmmakers who dabble in this particular method of animation, is that they're often afraid to use CGI elements. I can tell you first hand, and particularly in regard to THE PIRATES! A BAND OF MISSFITS, that this notion is false.

In fact, during an interview with, (director) Peter Lord had this to say about the marriage of stop-motion and CGI used to make the PIRATES film. "With “Pirates!, I must say that the new technology has made “Pirates!” really liberating to make, easy to make because the fact that you can shoot a lot of green screen stuff, the fact that you can easily extend the sets with CG, the fact that you can put the sea in there and a beautiful wooden boat that, frankly, would never sail in a million years, you can take that and put it into a beautiful CG scene and believe it. So as a filmmaker it’s liberating, really delightful. You get this excellent vibe that there’s nothing you can ask for that that the team can’t do."

Not to worry though, folks. Even with the inclusion of CGI, there were still plenty of hands-on techniques used to create and animate a vast majority of the fun seen throughout the film. For instance, the flesh of the puppets used for the film was made using a pliable silicon solution (which was then applied to a steel skeleton armature), while the clothing was crafted from a foam-based latex – allowing the material to easily fold and bend into whichever position the fabricator desired. Frequently the puppet department would produce upward of 20 puppets of the same character, which then allowed the film crew to shoot multiple scenes at once, if need be.

In terms of set design, the film's art director, Phil Lewis, had this to say about building the world for THE PIRATES! A BAND OF MISSFITS. The following quote was taken from an on-set interview and is included in the special features section of both the Blu-Ray and DVD release of the picture. “The first way that we actually conceive the sets, we build a cardboard mock-up, and using a viewfinder, usually it's a 2-E, we look in and out and around the sets to discuss all the different shots that are likely. What I try to do is imagine myself that big, in that world, and therefore build their world. I don't build a scaled version of our world."

Perhaps one of the most important things to consider about the production of a stop-motion animation, is that each location or set piece featured in the film must be built big enough for the set dressers and animators to be able to work within it. Every shot must be accounted for. Imagine if you spent months constructing a location to be used in the film that then did not allow for scene-specific angles to be shot. It would be a nightmare. Much like any other film, every second of the work day counts; especially when you're working on a stop-motion animated feature. If even the slightest thing should go wrong, it could take up to days – sometimes weeks – to construct and re-shoot the intended presentation.

Yar har har! By the time THE PIRATES! A BAND OF MISSFITS had ceased its plundering of the general audience's wallets, the film had amassed a worldwide total of $123,054,041 to add to its coffers. All told, this stop-motion sea-faring adventure met with a largely positive response from movie goers as well as critics. Adding to its accolades, the film received a series of nominations for its excellence.  At the Academy Awards it was placed in the running for Best Animated Feature. Additionally, Aardman's pirate adventure was also recognized by the animation-focused Annie Awards, when it was nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Character Animation in a Feature Film, Production Design, Voice Acting, and Writing! Not too bad, eh?

For what my coin is worth, I very much enjoy Aardman's THE PIRATES! A BAND OF MISSFITS. It perhaps doesn’t shine as brightly for me, personally, as Aardman's THE GREAT ESCAPE-like comedy CHICKEN RUN, but there's still plenty to take away from the expertly crafted film. The stop-motion is flawlessly executed, the kooky comedic beats fire with the ferocity of any high-velocity cannon ball, and the soul-searching of Pirate Captain certainly lends to the film having a fair share of heart amidst the comedy. I think it's fair to say that if you haven't had the chance to experience this unique pirate adventure, you might as well feed yourself to the sharks. Okay, last time, I swear. YARG!


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.