Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl sets a new and somewhat ominous precedent: here's a movie based on a Disneyland theme park ride. For better or worse, we won't have to wait long for the next installment in this trend. The Haunted Mansion is slated for release Thanksgiving 2003. What could be next? The Jungle Cruise? Space Mountain? At one time in the not so distant past, the flow of ideas went the opposite direction: movies inspired Disneyland thrill rides. Peter Pan begat Peter Pan's Flight. Alice in Wonderland begat the Mad Tea Party ride. But in defense of Disney, their Pirates of the Caribbean is a bit different. It represents some of Disney's most mischievous work: a theme park ride populated with living skeletons who assault a harbor town. This isn't the normal cookies-and-milk stuff from Disney. And the ride begs all sorts of questions, such as why are skeletons attacking the town? Unlike the Haunted Mansion ride, which doesn't have much of a backing drama, there's a story lurking in the background of Pirates of the Caribbean.

However, can Disney really be expected to deliver the goods on a macabre tale of murder and plunder? This isn't exactly Disney's forte. I was envisioning a white-washed tale without any of the black humor hinted at in the Disneyland thrill ride. But then I saw Johnny Depp in the preview trailers. Dressed as a gypsy-cum-rock star, he grins malevolently, his hair beaded and hanging in long braids, his eyes layered in eyeliner, his teeth filled with gold. No, this would be no ordinary Disney kids' movie.

Thankfully, at least part of the concept's promise ends up on the movie screen. Depp does indeed deliver an amazing and original performance (more about that later). And the scenario does indeed deliver on at least part of the menace suggested by the thrill ride. This is a marvelously rich and detailed work of art direction, set design, and CGI effects. (The presence of Jerry Bruckheimer as producer, an unlikely alliance, is no doubt also responsible for making this film different than your typical Disney fare.)

Story wise, however, Pirates of the Caribbean is a mixed bag. It contains three characters who could all make claims to being the central character and the movie clumsily moves between their stories, and in the process, despite the pyrotechnics and the plentiful action, the story never gains cohesive forward momentum. The movie acts like a car with fuel pump trouble: it surges forward and then stalls, it surges forward and then stalls (repeat many times). The movie is sort of like an old-fashioned serial of 12 to 15 chapters that has been edited down to a two-hour running time. First, one side has the "what's-it," then the other side, then it switches hands again, and again. It's like watching a game of ping pong.

The movie's forward momentum is replaced with a bevy of impressive action set pieces that have the unfortunate (and paradoxical) effect of stalling the movie's suspense and tension. The movie always looks marvelous, and for most people in the audience that is probably enough. This looks and feels like a big Hollywood blockbuster. Pirates of the Caribbean is designed as an epic sea drama, along the lines of Captain Blood or The Sea Hawk. But it has also been updated for contemporary audiences with a generous dollop of zombie mayhem, inspired by equal parts George Romero (Dawn of the Dead) and Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead).

The story involves a beautiful Governor's daughter (Keira Knightley of Bend it Like Beckham) who is kidnapped by pirates; a swashbuckling blacksmith's apprentice (Orlando Bloom, Legolas from The Lord of the Rings) who secretly loves the Governor's daughter and endeavors to save her; and a foolish/brilliant (which is it?) pirate named Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who attempts to foil the kidnapping plot – strictly for personal gain, mind you. The aforementioned kidnappers are the crew of the Black Pearl, a cursed ship with black sails that can out run anything on the seven seas. Its crew lives a twilight existence. During the day their scarred, tattooed, tanned bodies look normal enough, but in the glow of the moon, they appear in their true form – as skeletons with rotten flesh hanging from battered bones. They follow Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush of Shine), the scurviest pirate to plunder a merchant ship. Several years ago, he stranded Jack Sparrow on a desert island, and now Jack wants to even the score.

Watching Pirates of the Caribbean made me appreciate Raiders of the Lost Ark all the more. In Spielberg's film, he explicitly drew on the serial tradition, but he made the hyperactive pacing work by always keeping specific goals in sight. In contrast, if you try watching any of the films that resulted when classic serials, such as Flash Gordon, were edited down to feature length, you'll encounter arbitrary plot developments, a cacophony of noise, and a bewildering onslaught of motion. While Raiders of the Lost Ark was carefully paced, Pirates of the Caribbean goes on and on, delivering one sword fight after the next, one ship siege after another, in a rhythmically clumsy mess, filmed with an annoying profusion of disorienting close ups.

Even Johnny Depp's performance is somewhat problematic. He hyperactively stays in perpetual motion; he's always twisting at the waist, his eyes are always rolling, his head is always tilting to the side. He gives us a unique and fascinating character, but someone needed to tell him that less is more. He could've learned by simply paying closer attention to Geoffrey Rush, who delivers a marvelously wicked performance. Rush's Captain Barbossa is a vicious character, but Rush conveys the menace with a modicum of movement. Meanwhile, Depp never stops "acting." Even while I was impressed with his extravagant approach to Jack Sparrow, every time he appeared on screen, I was reminded that I was watching an actor working extremely hard to impress his audience. And so goes this movie in general: director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) has fashioned a beautiful but overly complicated adventure yarn. He manages some great visuals, such as the living-dead pirates walking along the bottom of the sea as they head into battle (which evokes a somewhat similar scene from Douglas Fairbanks' silent-era classic The Black Pirate). Verbinski is clearly having fun here, as when he pays homage to the Disneyland thrill ride by staging a scene where prisoners in a jail cell try to lure a dog – which has the cell keys in its mouth – within their grasp. (Remember that scene from the ride?) But the storytelling lacks focus, and the plot twists desperately like a wounded anaconda.

Pirates of the Caribbean could've been a great serial. But the serial form doesn't really exist anymore, at least it doesn't exist in contemporary motion picture theaters anyway. The serial has been revived on television, but in motion picture theaters, all story ideas unfortunately must conform to the feature film format. In Pirates of the Caribbean, the movie's team of writers (including Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio of Shrek) devised enough plot for several films and then crammed it all into a single film. No amount of editing can fix this problem. Someone needed to stop the flow of plot developments, but no one seems to have had the fortitude to corral this mangy crew of headstrong buccaneers.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Walt Disney Pictures
Movie Web site: Pirates of the Caribbean



Photo credits: © 2003 Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc. All rights reserved.