The most remarkable thing about Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is neither Johnny Depp’s mesmerizing performance, nor ILM’s literally eye-popping skeletal ghost-ship crew, but the sheer fact that the movie works at all.
Yes, it’s a movie based on a theme-park attraction (which, as sources of cinematic inspiration go, ranks well below comic books and even video games). Yes, it’s got an unwieldy subtitled name, clumsier than Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and only marginally less so than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned pirate movie, the last notable example of which was the 1995 flop Cutthroat Island.
Yet somehow Pirates of the Caribbean is more entertaining, funny, and even thrilling and romantic than it has any right to be. If it doesn’t transcend the pirate-movie genre, it at least transcends the theme-park attraction genre, rising to the level of decent summer popcorn action fare. Critics have compared it to such genre-celebrating pictures as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride); while it’s not the the same league as Raiders, at least, it’s in the same spirit.
Because it’s a Disney release, parents should note that Pirates is an action film, not a family film — the first
Yet Director Gore Verbinski (The Mexican) handles the proceedings with a light touch, never either taking the material too seriously or crossing the line into self-aware satire. The plot is sheer nonsense, and characters and motivations aren’t much more coherent; but the conflict has a goofy logic of its own, and the characters, at least, take the story seriously, without winking at the audience.
This story entails pretty much everything one could want or expect to see in a pirate movie. There’s an ancient treasure of stolen gold, a terrible curse, a secret island-cave hiding place, a feisty damsel in distress, ships blown into driftwood, bottles of rum, planks to walk, desert islands to get stranded on, plenty of swordplay and rope-swinging, and an ominous, ghostly vessel crewed by cursed souls who look human by day or candlelight, but whose true nature is revealed under the light of the moon.
At the center of the film is Depp’s almost unclassifiable performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, a down-on-his-luck buccaneer who may be either the best or the worst pirate in the Spanish Main, but is definitely the quirkiest. With absolute conviction and extraordinary control, Depp vanishes into a figure whose meaningless but precise tics and peculiar inflection seem to belong to another world — a world of his character’s own imagining, inhabited only by himself. Sparrow seems to regard everyone else as walk-ons in his own personal drama, and Depp threatens to make it true.
Also hamming it up is Geoffrey Rush (Finding Nemo) as Captain Barbossa, Sparrow’s rival and captain of the mysterious Black Pearl. Orlando Bloom (Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies), officially the hero, has a less showy role than his costars, but brings charisma and presence to the part of earnest blacksmith Will Turner, while in the heroine role Kiera Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) is both fetching and funny as Elizabeth Swann, the governor’s daughter.
A glance at the characters and supporting cast is almost enough to guess at most of the plot. Honest but poor Will obviously wants to marry high-born Elizabeth; but of course her powder-wigged father (Jonathan Pryce) would prefer to see her joined to some stuffy, uniformed snob, the sort of fellow who would have a name like "Norrington" (Jack Davenport). Will and Jack Sparrow must duel, of course, but then they have to join forces in some common cause, such as rescuing Elizabeth, Will’s love, from Barbossa, Jack’s rival. Less predictable is what Barbossa and his crew want, and what Elizabeth and Will have to do with it, and how the frenzied final act will actually play out.
Like many pirate movies, Pirates of the Caribbean is enamored with the mythology of pirate lore, and is indulgently forgiving of its colorful antihero, Sparrow. But of course what Sparrow really represents, and what the film really celebrates, is not actual piracy, but the pirate-movie tradition. Pirates is nostalgic not for the heyday of Blackbeard and William Kidd, but for that of Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk) and Douglas Fairbanks (The Black Pirate). It’s no classic, but it’s a fitting tribute to the tradition.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.