Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:23 - Released 7/9/03

Since this movie was released during the summer of 2003 while I was on sabbatical, I did not get around to reviewing it until much later, after it was nominated for Academy Awards.

I suppose it was destined to happen. Walt Disney Pictures, that beleaguered supergiant of a movie studio, has been having administrative trouble, political trouble, and trouble with ideas for the last several years (even its best selling cartoon movies of late have been those produced by Pixar, a company which now yearns to breathe free), but their theme parks are still going strong—so why not start making movies based on theme park rides? The idea has certainly paid off, at least in the case of this movie, since Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl has not only been one of the hottest box-office hits of the year, it’s also doing well in video sales and has been nominated for several Academy Awards, one of which is Best Actor for Johnny Depp. The same cannot be said for WDP’s other theme park ride-based movie of this year, The Haunted Mansion, which was marked by a mediocre box-office performance and poor reviews.

Although this film is said to be based on the amusement park ride, it’s probably best that director Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Mexican) and writers Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolpert embellished the plot a little, since the ride, as I remember it, mainly involves animatronic pirates yelling, drinking, shooting, looting, and chasing women. Elliot and Rossio, who have worked together on cartoons like Aladdin, The Road To El Dorado, Shrek, and Treasure Planet, and their collaborators, have indeed crafted an engaging and fun story, which includes pirates doing all the above activities, but also involves much more. In fact, the plot is so complex, it’s difficult to decide what or whom this movie is really about.

It’s about a young woman named Miss Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, Bend It Like Beckham), the proper and privileged British governor’s daughter, who is coming of age in Port Royal, Jamaica, sometime in the late 18th century. It is also about Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, keeping busy in between Lord Of The Rings outings), a young swordsmith about Elizabeth’s age who met her when they were young and has always had a secret crush on her, but is below her class and therefore ineligible as a suitor. It’s about Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the scurvy pirate and former captain of the dreaded ship Black Pearl, which has caused such trouble it has grown to mythical status. And it’s about Sparrow’s former first mate, an even scurvier (is that a word?) pirate named Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who usurped Jack’s ship in a mutiny some time ago. But most of all, it’s about the one thing that connects them all: a heavy gold medallion with a skull in the center, given to Elizabeth by Will when they were young and desperately sought after by Sparrow, Barbossa, and the rest of the Black Pearl’s crew. It seems that the medallion is the last remaining piece of the legendary Aztec Gold of Cortez, the disappearance of which caused the Pearl’s crew to be put under a dreadful curse, and the restoration of which—they hope—will undo it.

Captain Sparrow’s arrival in Port Royal draws the attention of Elizabeth’s fiancé, the newly promoted Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), who hates pirates, and of Elizabeth herself, who has always harbored a guilty fascination with them. But when the medallion is discovered in her possession, she is taken hostage by Barbossa’s crew and carted off into the sunset, pursued by Sparrow, who wants the medallion, Will, who wants Elizabeth, and Norrington, who wants to send all these scurvy buccaneers to Davy Jones’s locker (that’s pirate lingo for the bottom of the sea) and return victorious with his bride so that maybe he can score. I mean, score another promotion, of course, since Port Royal’s Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) is both her dad and his boss.

This movie, being a Disney-produced summer action/adventure blockbuster, is not surprisingly full of colorful visuals, amazing special effects, and plenty of silly fun for the whole family. In addition to the setting of Port Royal, with its high cliffs and sunny seaside atmosphere, there are several Caribbean locales to which we are taken by sea, including the pirate-infested island of Tortuga, which is most like the Disneyland ride, the fearsome Isla De Muerte, where the Pearl crewmen keep their huge stash of treasure, and the small, beautiful, uncharted isle where two characters are briefly imprisoned. Then there are the special effects. In addition to the many oceanbound scenes, complete with storms and sea battles nearly as impressive as those seen in the much more serious Master And Commander (also released this year), there is also the matter of the curse, which required the filmmakers to delve into the world of computer graphic/animation to pull it off. Since the Aztec gold was stolen, the pirates of the Black Pearl have lost the use of at least two of their five senses (they can’t taste or feel anything, but apparently can still hear, see, and smell clearly), and also cannot die. Because in a way they’re already dead. This aspect of the curse is brilliantly realized when the moon is out, as in the moonlight they appear as they really are—as a group of animated rotting skeletons who are still able to sword fight and perform all their sailorly duties despite the absence of muscle tissue. Kinda like the Grateful Dead in that “Touch Of Grey” video.

In addition to all the eye candy, there are also good performances by all cast members, especially Depp, whose hilarious characterization of Jack Sparrow is said to be based on his friend Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Weaving, bobbing, slurring his words, and looking always under the influence of something—I don’t know if Depp intends this impersonation to be an homage to Richards or a good-natured jab at his famously drug-addled reputation, but he steals every scene he’s in. Besides the drunk act, he also happens to look fantastic, with tattoos, piercings, gold teeth, and dark eye liner, not to mention the kerchief, three-cornered hat, swords, pistols, cutlasses...you know, the whole pirate ensemble. Bloom and Knightley are both very attractive as the star-crossed young couple, but they’re mostly forced to play straight to Depp and Rush, whose dastardly pirate Barbossa is a sharp contrast to Depp’s affable and eminently fair Jack.

Word has it that Pirates Of The Caribbean’s title was originally intended to be just that, but the filmmakers decided to give it a subtitle so that if it did well, sequels could be considered. (Since when do they reserve sequels for movies that do well?) At any rate, there is indeed a Pirates 2 in pre-production and scheduled for release in 2005, with the same creative team and the same three leading actors—Depp, Bloom, and Knightley—reprising their roles. And if it’s anything like this one, I say, bring it on—let me just get my bottle of rum... ****½

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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