OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Motion pictures nowadays draw inspiration from lots of sources nowadays. Novels, television shows, video games, urban legends, comic books, plays, and true events have all been translated into film, but among the oddest ideas for a film are amusement park rides and attractions. Walt Disney Pictures ventured into this idea in 2002 when they released The Country Bears, based on Disneyland's "Country Bear Jamboree" attraction. The movie was a tremendous failure at the box office, but that didn't stop Disney from releasing two more ride-based films the following year. One of them, Eddie Murphy's The Haunted Mansion, would barely break even, while the other would go on to gross over 650 million dollars worldwide and become one of the most acclaimed films of 2003. Based on the immensely popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl reinvigorated the struggling genre of pirate adventures (which, with movies already few and far between, had taken huge knocks after Cutthroat Island, Waterworld, and Treasure Planet crashed and burned at the box office) while earning five Academy Award nominations. But is it worthy of such plaudits? You bet it is.
Our tale of adventure begins aboard the HMS Dauntless as it sails from England to the Caribbean. On the ship's deck is Elizabeth Swann (Lucinda Dryzdek), a young girl whose father (Jonathan Price) has been named governor of the Jamaican harbor town of Port Royal. As she discusses her obsession with pirates with her father and the ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Norrington (Jack Davenport), Elizabeth sees an unconscious boy named Will Turner (Dylan Smith) floating on a makeshift raft nearby. It isn't long before the crew learns where Will came from, as the Dauntless soon thereafter passes a fiery shipwreck. As the crew searches the wreckage for survivors, Will is rescued and put in Elizabeth's care. She discovers a gold skull medallion around his neck, which Elizabeth assumes means he's a pirate. Fearing he'll be executed, she quickly yanks the medallion from Will's neck and hides it from the others. She looks out onto the ocean, and sees a ghostly ship with shredded black sails leaving the scene of the crime.
Flash forward eight years into the future, where Norrington is courting the adult Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) while anticipating a promotion to commodore by the British Royal Navy. Norrington pulls Elizabeth aside after his promotion ceremony and begins to propose, but her tight corset causes her to faint and fall into the bay. Inept buccaneer Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), newly arrived in Port Royal, sees what happens and dives in after her. He pulls her to safety, but when Governor Swann and Norrington arrive and notice the brand from the East India Trading Company on Jack's wrist, they attempt to arrest him for piracy. Jack makes a daring escape and slips into a blacksmith shop, where he's discovered by the adult Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), now a blacksmith's apprentice with an unrequited love for Elizabeth. Will is a wee bit less than fond of pirates, so he makes an attempt to introduce Jack to the business end of a sword. The two engage in quite an exciting swordfight, with Jack only getting the upper hand by pulling a gun on his foe. But before we can discover whether Jack would have shot him, he is knocked unconscious by Will's employer and is thrown in jail.
That evening, Port Royal is attacked by the infamous ghost ship the Black Pearl, "called" to port by a mysterious pulse emitted by Elizabeth's skull medallion before Jack pulled her from the bay. The Black Pearl's pirates rampage through Port Royal and kidnap Elizabeth, who immediately invokes the right of parlay in order to conference with the Black Pearl's heartless captain, Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Elizabeth, claiming her surname is Turner because she fears Barbossa is after her father, barters the medallion in exchange for the Black Pearl permanently leaving Port Royal. Barbossa accepts the trade, but thanks to a loophole in their agreement refuses to release Elizabeth.
The next day, Will fails in his attempts to convince Norrington to immediately go after Elizabeth's captors. While the Commodore plans a more strategic course of action, Will decides more drastic measures are necessary. He goes to Jack and offers to break him out of prison if the pirate will help him track down Elizabeth and the Black Pearl. Seeing this as his opportunity to reclaim his beloved ship from the mutineers that stole it from him ten years prior, Jack accepts. Will frees Jack from his cell and they quickly abscond with the HMS Interceptor, the Royal Navy's fastest ship. The duo heads to the lawless island of Tortuga to assemble a motley crew, and with Norrington and the Royal Navy hot on their heels, they follow the Black Pearl to the mysterious Isla del Muerta. But accomplishing their goal will be no easy feat. Barbossa and his men need the blood of a long-dead shipmate to reverse an ancient Aztec curse that has left them stranded somewhere between life and death. Believing that Elizabeth and her medallion are the keys to regaining their mortality, they aren't going to let her go without a fight.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is all about excitement, adventure, and entertainment. It does not hesitate to take us straight into the thick of things, forgoing any sort of opening credits aside from the title. Not even the Disney or Bruckheimer Films logos precede the movie. The movie stays true to its amusement park roots by being a thrill ride from the very beginning. However, I did find it to be somewhat on the lengthy side. The movie clocks in at two hours and twenty-three minutes, the majority of which is comprised of fights, chases, and other types of action. Since a few of the scenes grow quite protracted, some of them could easily be trimmed, and the movie could have been easily reigned in at an even two hours. But aside from that, I really don't have any really grievous complaints.
While director Gore Verbinski's previous movie, the 2002 ghost story The Ring, was a straight-up horror film, his work here is more akin to Sam Raimi's cult classic Army of Darkness. There's loads of quirky comedy, a goofy lead character, and an army of skeletons in both. It seems to me that if Raimi had put Bruce Campbell on a pirate ship instead of in medieval times, Army of Darkness would have been quite similar to The Curse of the Black Pearl. Verbinski's direction here is quite good, and it benefits from Dariusz Wolski's spectacular cinematography and the wonderful music composed by Klaus Badelt. Badelt's music really enhances the movie's action, and the occasional instance of the Disneyland ride's anthem "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me" are quite amusing.
The screenplay, penned by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is quite daffy, never taking itself too seriously. Not once do we the viewer question any plot holes while watching the movie, though that may come up during post-movie reflection. Barbossa and his men are pretty much invincible, which means the Royal Navy probably won't beat them as long as they're cursed. So did the scene where Jack fought Barbossa while Barbossa's crew attacked Norrington's ship really need to run ten minutes? And how many times do we need to see Jack get caught and almost killed before he makes a daring escape? I know he's a crafty little weasel, so I don't need it repeated to me over and over. While most of the problems could have been solved by spending a little more time in the editing room, I do wonder if Elliott and Rossio knew just how long the movie would be when they finished the final draft of the script.
Let's move on to the cast. Jack Davenport and Jonathan Price are wholly unremarkable, but their characters were total non-factors, so I'll forgive that. However, the rest of the cast more than makes up for two unimportant third-tier characters. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightfuly make a cute couple, and both of their performances are quite fun to watch. However, I got the impression that they were taking the material way too seriously. If The Curse of the Black Pearl was less comedic, then this point would have been rendered moot. But no matter, this is only a minor complaint. Geoffrey Rush is wonderfully over the top, playing the role like he's having the time of his life. He makes Barbossa an engaging villain, one that might even be likable if he wasn't such a bad guy.
But the most impressive member of the cast is Johnny Depp. Depp is absolutely brilliant, owning the whole movie. The character of Captain Jack Sparrow hearkens back to a time when memorable characters were valued more than movies that rely too heavily on computer generated graphics or way-too-pretentious social commentaries, and he plays the role with an extraordinary enthusiasm. Had he played the role straight, in the vein of legendary cinematic swashbuckler Errol Flynn, the entire movie would have been ruined. He instead plays the role with a sense of whimsical silliness that sets the tone for the entire film. I point to a scene where Jack and Elizabeth are marooned on a desert island, and Jack puts a hidden cache of rum to good use by getting blind stinking drunk. Despite his inebriation, he behaves exactly the same as he does when he's sober. This sort of thing is very much evidence on the direction Depp has decided to go in. The movie would have been dead on arrival without his amazing performance and the wonderfully goofy character, and I found Depp to be quite deserving of his Acadamy Award nomination for "Best Actor."
As I said above, the movie's roots are quite noticeable, as it keeps a rapid, exciting pace for nearly its entire running time. It only slows down long enough to fulfill needs for necessary plot advancement and exposition. With a little bit of streamlining, the movie would have been an epic for the ages. But truth be told, it's still pretty darn good. Boasting entertaining performances, thrilling action sequences, and believable, seamless CGI effects, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is worth seeing. I'll give it four and a half stars and a proud seal of approval.
Final Rating: ****½