Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Director : Gore Verbinski
Screenplay : Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa), Orlando Bloom (Will Turner), Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Swann), Jack Davenport (Norrington), Jonathan Pryce (Governor Weatherby Swann), Lee Arenberg (Pintel), Mackenzie Crook (Ragetti), Damian O'Hare (Lt. Gillette)
There is a real sense of giddy pleasure in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl that is all too often missing from big-budget Hollywood spectacles. In an era marked by Matrix-stylized seriousness or Charlie’s Angels-like postmodern overload, Pirates of the Caribbean pulls off a neat balancing act between nostalgic adventure and self-aware humor. Forget the awkwardness of the title. Forget that it’s inspired by a Disneyland anamatronic theme park ride. And try to overcome the reluctance most people feel about pirate movies in general (not that there’s been one in almost a decade). While this may sound like a cynical bit of damning praise, I have no reservation in saying that Pirates of the Caribbean is the best corporate-produced blockbuster to emerge this summer.
Much of what makes the movie so enjoyable is the sheer exuberance of Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, the dread-locked, Cockney-accented, foppish pirate at the center of the movie. Depp clearly relished the role, a chance for him to bring his unique brand of eccentricity to a mainstream movie that not only had room for it, but works because of it. Draped in scarves and leering with eye shadow and gold teeth, Depp swishes and sways across the screen, slurring his odd speech patterns and melding a delightful concoction of androgynous sexuality and forthright machismo. It’s a hilariously over-the-top performance—Blackbeard by way of Oscar Wilde.
Almost as good as Depp is Geoffery Rush as Barbossa, an eviler than evil pirate whose ship, the Black Pearl, is cursed after he stole a chest of Inca gold. Rush sneers and connives, his voice throaty and wicked and his eyes gleaming with the kind of half-madness that only exists in the tattered frames of B-movies. When the moonlight reveals him to be a walking corpse, a computer-generated pirate-zombie, he isn’t half as effective as when Rush embodies his gleeful wickedness.
The story in Pirates of the Caribbean is ostensibly a romance about Will Turner (Lord of the Rings’ Orlando Bloom), a young swordsmith on a quest to rescue Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, Bend It Like Beckham), the governor’s daughter and the object of his unrequited affection. Elizabeth is taken prisoner by Barbossa, and Will, despite his derision for pirates, must team up with Jack Sparrow in order to get her back. There are a few twists here and there involving the true identity of Will’s long-dead father and Jack’s history with Barbossa, and there are at least three separate climaxes, but it all feels like filler material around Depp and Rush’s performances, which are what the movie is really about.
Nevertheless, Pirates of the Caribbean was an expensive gamble—at a cost of some $135 million, it looks gorgeous, with big action setpieces and full-size pirate ships blasting cannons at each other (and let’s not forget the aforementioned CGI pirate-zombies). Given that the last two big-budget pirate movies to set sail were Roman Polanski’s 1986 dud Pirates and Renny Harlin’s 1995 megaflop Cutthroat Island, it’s a wonder that anyone would have the guts to try one again.
What director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio do just right is not take the material seriously. In some ways, Pirates of the Caribbean is a spoof of pirate-movie clichés and the corporate synergy movement that makes movies and theme park attractions interchangeable (although this may be the first time a movie has been made from a ride, rather than vice-versa). Every time one of the images on screen reflects a scene from the Disney ride (the best being the dog holding the jail keys and Depp’s deadpan delivery of the line, “Forget it lads. That dog’s never going to move”), it’s a wink-wink, nudge-nudge joke to the audience, rather than just a dutiful recreation of what they’ve already seen elsewhere. The ludicrousness of some of the plot mechanics (including a lengthy battle between two undead characters who’s can’t kill each other) is referenced by the characters themselves, revealing the sublime silliness of it all.
And that’s precisely why the movie works so well. Although a bit too long at 134 minutes, it mostly sails along on the good nature of its own lack of pretension. Big budgets give ride to big spectacle, but smart writers and great actors can bring it back down to earth, reminding us that sometimes the biggest joke of all is that we, against our best intentions, crave camp and kitsch at its finest.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick