FILM REVIEW: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Johnny Depp plays lusty Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," and while he's not exactly believable, the delicate-featured Depp gives "Pirates" just the sly wink and air of reckless nonchalance it needs.
Playing a salty British sea dog in the 1720s who has had his ship, the Black Pearl, stolen by mutinous first mate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and crew, and chasing them while being chased by the British navy, Depp ambles through this production with the air of a slightly woozy con artist. Wearing a swashbuckling goatee and sailing what may be the world's first compact pirate ship, he spends most of his time staring bemusedly at the heaving bodices, dueling skeletons, British naval bullies and funky freebooters around him.
That's the right attitude. After all, this is a movie based not on a novel, history or even another old movie, but on a theme park ride (Disneyland's long-popular pirate ship attraction), and that means we're lucky if we get any wit, imagination or character at all.
Can you honestly expect a movie designed, at least partly, to act as a promotion for a theme park ride to follow in the grand footsteps of Doug Fairbanks' Black Pirate, Errol Flynn's Captain Blood or Robert Newton's "yaaaar-ing" Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 "Treasure Island"?
But the movie surprises. Written by the "Shrek" team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, it's not a misbegotten hybrid sci-fi weirdie like "Treasure Planet," nor is it another disaster bound straight for Davey Jones' Locker like the last big pirate movie, 1995's "Cutthroat Island." And it's not overly cynical and dark, like Roman Polanski's 1986 "Pirates" which was also inspired by the Disney ride. "Pirates of the Caribbean" is a reasonably entertaining movie, with an attractive cast, splashy effects and dazzling cinematography of galleons chasing each other around an ersatz Caribbean.
Actually, I happen to love the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which may be the best at the original Disneyland. But that doesn't mean it should have twice been turned into a film. The story here, such as it is, involves a three-cornered sea chase. Barbossa's mateys have run off with Jack's ship, and they've also kidnapped the beauteous Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley of "Bend It Like Beckham"), daughter of Port Royal's silly-twit Gov. Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce of "Brazil"). Jack is after them, on a commandeered royal navy ship, The Interceptor, along with Elizabeth's true love, stouthearted swordmaker Will Turner (Orlando Bloom of "Lord of the Rings"). And those two are pursued, on The Dauntless, by the ridiculous Gov. Swann and Elizabeth's nasty fiancé, Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport of "Career Girls").
Complicating these dauntless cliches further is a curse: a fearsome supernatural zinger hurled on Barbossa and his crew. Until they replenish a special treasure back at the cove, they are doomed to turn into pirate skeletons whenever moonlight hits them. This enables the special-effects team to copy the skeletons in the Disneyland ride and also to try to one-up the famous dueling skeletons of Ray Harryhausen as well as to get more variety into the various sea battles and sword fights. Truth to tell, the sight of all those skeletons whacking away at each other does have a certain lunatic appeal, though the writers don't get crazy enough with the idea.
Meanwhile, the actors fill out their stock roles with the usual Hollywood zest (though only Depp puts something different into his part), and tawny-haired Knightley, a mere 17 during the shoot, holds the camera as she did in "Beckham," like a natural star.
"Pirates" was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, which means that it's slick, racy and roars along with damn-the-expense abandon. And it was directed by Gore Verbinski, another of the ex-commercial aces Bruckheimer favors, as well as the maker of Disney's whimsical "Mouse Hunt," the sexy Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts chase thriller "The Mexican," and the big Japanese-derived horror hit "The Ring."
Verbinski is a visual stylist in the new mode. He knows how to sell himself and his material and how to keep his images lively and popping. But, like most of the other Bruckheimer TV ad-derived directors (Tony Scott, Simon West, Michael Bay, et al.), he can't give these shallow, made-to-order stories any human depth. Verbinski puts together scenes that grab you, but he engages our interest without really satisfying it and that's why the offbeat, perverse jokiness Depp jams into this smart-hack script is so crucial.
At least "Pirates of the Caribbean" is fun as long as you don't expect much. But take it from me: The ride is better.
"Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"
Directed by Gore Verbinski; written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; photographed by Dariusz Wolski; edited by Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin, Arthur Schmidt; production designed by Brian Morris; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. A Buena Vista Pictures release; opened Wednesday, July 9. Running time: 2:13. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for action adventure/violence).
Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp
Barbossa Geoffrey Rush
Will Turner Orlando Bloom
Elizabeth Swann Keira Knightley
Norrington Jack Davenport
Gov. Weatherby Swann Jonathan Pryce