Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (DVD, 2004, 3-Disc Set, The Lost Disc: Special Edition)

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Pirates of the Caribbean: How Depp is Your Love?

Jul 27, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Depp, Rush, the script, the style

Cons:Over-long, Bloom's character, peters out too soon

The Bottom Line: Johnny Depp makes the movie, but there's other fun to be had as well...


Despite an unwieldy title, Disney's new Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a marked improvement over the Mouse House's previous attempts to mine their theme parks for semi-original ideas. Disney's The Country Bears (a movie I once reviewed for reasons known only to me and my bookie) was a work of such soulless synergy that it actually helped me develop antipathy for a little amusement venue I liked to call the happiest place on earth.

Pirates of the Caribbean is frequently bloated, lumbering movie. Like the ride that gave it its name, the biggest rushes come at the beginning, while the end is little more than a drift into port. There are enough colorful performances and creative set pieces, though, that going into the movie with low expectations is almost certain to yield pleasure. Unfortunately, the film's mammoth box office grosses (watch your back, trashy Matrix sequel) and somewhat gratuitous critical ravings mean that Pirates has lost much of its appealing stealth.

The best decision that the Disney Corporate Overlords made when determining to transform an already dated (but fun) ride into summer blockbuster was hiring a flawless team of writers, particularly Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. From The Mask of Zorro to The Road to El Dorado to Shrek and even to Treasure Planet, the duo has show a reverence for genres that less creative individuals gave up on long ago. Their work is never flawless, but what they understand fairly well is that swashbucklers and fairy tales are driven by a background mythology. Compare the depth of their treatments to the empty vessels of either Lara Croft film and you can see the difference.

The film begins with a giant British ship in a fog bank. A young girl is chastised for singing a song about pirates (that would be "Yo, Ho, Ho Ho" of ride-fame) and soon spots a boy floating, near dead, on a raft. They rescue him, but the girl sees the lad's chain, a pirate gold medallion, and removes it to protect him. As she takes it, she catches a glimpse of a ghost ship.

Years later, that girl has grown into Elizabeth Swan, daughter of the governor (Jonathan Pryce) of Port Royale. Elizabeth is a beautiful young lady essentially promised to dashing naval hero Norrington (Jack Davenport), but she still harbors feelings for the boy she swept out of the water, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who rarely gets credit for his craft.

Enter Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) a once fearsome pirate now reduced to the lowest of humiliations. He arrives in town hoping to jump-start his piracy career, but soon finds himself in jail awaiting the gallows.

Things get interesting when the Black Pearl (it's a ship, it turns out, not a reference to the Steinbeck novel) sails into port. As several characters say, the Black Pearl is crewed by the damned and captained by a man so evil that hell spit him back out. That man is Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush playing "evil pirate as Marquis de Sade") and he's after Elizabeth's gold medallion for reasons that would spoil the fun of the movie, but that are, fortunately, reasonably entertaining.

After the pirates kidnap Elizabeth, Will must join forces with Jack and both men must overcome hurdles from their past in true swashbuckling style.

The Elliot/Rossio script (with obvious assists from Jay Wolpert, who recently wrote the pleasantly archaic version of The Count of Monte Cristo) is light on references to the Disney ride, which may disappoint some children. It is, however, fairly literate and fairly light on anachronistic touches. This is a throwback pirate movie, rather than a post-modern take on the genre. From the characters and their fantastically resonant names to the repeated mentions of "Davy Jones Locker," the script welcomes in the pirate archetypes without feeling the need to cast judgement on them.

With the sole exception of Johnny Depp's entire performance, Pirates of the Caribbean is nearly irony-free, which I find to be remarkable. The inevitable copycat movies that follow will miss that lesson and attempt to wink at the audience and they'll fall flat on their faces. Pirates is loaded with humor, but physical and double-entendre, but it's genial humor. Obviously the Disney overlords were comfortable with making individual lines and characters funny, but they weren't prepared to risk a take that would cheapen the theme park product. Probably not a bad idea.

The urge for safety is also evident in the selection of Gore Verbinski as director. Verbinski is rapidly become the epitome of the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none." Pirates of the Caribbean is actually something of a greatest hits reel for Verbinski. Because there's a ghost story aspect, he can play with the uninspired horror tropes he learned on The Ring. There are bickering scenes out of The Mexican and moments of Saturday cartoon mayhem out of his finest work on Mouse Hunt.

Predictably, those moments of carefully calibrated chaos are the best in the film, because they combine action and humor (The film is, in fact, rarely successful when it tries to be any one thing at once.). The first duel between Will and Jack Sparrow is the movie's best scene as the characters match blades, match wits, and fly through the air, but not in the over-done Hong Kong way. This is pure swashbuckling with only hints on modern technology interfering. There are several scenes of boat-to-boat piracy that succeed in the same way. When special effects took hold towards the end, I wished Verbinski were having a bit more fun with them. It almost goes without saying that Sam Raimi or Terry Gilliam would have made this into a much better movie.

Verbinski and the script lose their way in the meandering second act and never fully decide where they want the film's climax to be. The result is that by the time several main characters meet in a main swordfight, the action is no longer organic to the story. Ten minutes of uninspired sword choreography is topped off by a piece of trickery that could have come much earlier. The film's actually ending is entirely passive, a major disappointment.

Part of that disappointment comes from the screen presence of Orlando Bloom as Turner and, so as not to blame Bloom, the script's handling of the character. Taking in a classic pirate movie like The Seahawks, Captain Blood or The Black Swan and your struck by just how roguish Errol Flynn and Tyrone Powers got to be. We're told that Bloom's Turner has pirate in his blood, but he so bland and so gentile that he makes for a bland centerpiece. Not to condone the activity, but Flynn and Powers would be willing to slap the film's heroine if that was what was required to make her fall in love. Granted, we don't let our heroes do that anymore and for good reason. But I never for a second bought that Bloom was anything more than a child playing soldier. There's no daring and no adventurousness in him. But the teenage girls love their Orlando Bloom and part of what they love is his completely non-threatening sexuality, so I guess the film was doing well.

Bloom's Turner is paired all too naturally with Keira Knightley's Swan. Playing probably the most buff damsel-in-distress in genre history, Knightley is quick witted, but rarely much more than a tightly corseted prop. While she gets a little proactive towards the end, her character lacks the feistiness that Rossio and Elliot gave Catherine Zeta-Jones in Mask of Zorro.

Bloom and Knightley also don't have any chemistry at all. The film just asks us to accept that they've always been in love and they're so darned pretty that we don't question their attraction. Except that I did question it. I was bothered that Jack Davenport's Norrington, as the competition for the lady's love, never seems like a bad guy. In fact, he seems decent enough that the film really needed to give some reason for why Elizabeth doesn't like him. Her real answer is, "Eh, Norrington's OK, but I like Will a bit better." Nothing in either decision has any passion, so the stakes are dramatically lowered.

The reason why I give this film a recommendation is Johnny Depp, which at this point goes without saying. Without him, the movie would have sunk under the weight of its niceness and respect for the genre. Playing the swishiest pirate ever to take the screen (and Basil Rathbone's character in Captain Blood is pretty darned swishy), Depp's every gesture is an extension of a character only he could have created. He minces and wears heavy eye shadow and mascara and while the Flynn heroes would slap women, women are always slapping him. He's doing a strange accent as well, which he maintains consistently throughout. When Johnny Depp isn't on screen, the movie suffers.

Pirates of the Caribbean is a well-mounted production from Dariusz Wolski's cinematography to Zimmer-esque script from Hans Zimmer. With a running time of around 140 minutes, 30 minutes could have been cut without any problem. Provided those cut minutes didn't include Depp, this would have worked much better.

I'm still ready to give Pirates 3.5 stars out of 5 and a recommendation.


Recommend this product? Yes

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