Spoiler warning: No secret plot information is revealed in this review, but those who wish to avoid learning about some elements of the movie should avoid this review.
To be honest, I walked in to see Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl with the lowest of expectations.
Basing a feature film on a Disneyland ride, rather than the other way around, seemed to indicate the end of Disney creativity as we knew it. With their first foray into this genre, the horrid The Country Bears, Walt Disney Pictures offered little evidence that they could actually mine their own intellectual property with any kind of respect.
Thankfully, however, director Gore Verbinski has managed to craft a clever, witty and laugh-out-loud funny film that still pays loving and irreverent homage to the venerable Disneyland establishment that inspired it.
Johnny Depp portrays the former-captain Jack Sparrow, abandoned on a deserted island by the mutinous crew of the Black Pearl. Our first glimpse of Sparrow is a tight shot as he sails majestically into Port Royal Harbor. As the camera pulls back, we see that his grand ship is nothing but a sinking skiff.
Sparrow steps off the wreckage of his boat and rescues Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), the daughter of Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce). This brings the unwanted attention of Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), who recognizes Sparrow as a pirate despite his heroic efforts, and orders him captured. This leads to a fantastic chase sequence and near-escape in which we meet blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the nice boy from the wrong part of the village, who is secretly in love with Elizabeth.
Sparrow is eventually jailed, just in time for the crew of the Black Pearl to attack Port Royal and kidnap Elizabeth. We learn that the treasure they looted just prior to the mutiny has cursed the crew of the Black Pearl. The only way to break the curse is to restore every last piece of gold to the Isla de Meurta and pay a blood debt. Conveniently, the last bit of treasure is found around Elizabeth's neck, and the villainous Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) decides that her blood will be enough to settle the score.
Thus begins a race to Isla de Meurta, with the Black Pearl being chased by Sparrow and Turner aboard the stolen HMS Interceptor, the fastest ship in the British fleet, and Norrington and the HMS Dauntless in hot pursuit of both ships. Sparrow wants his ship, Norrington wants his fiance fainting into a high-dive after a marriage proposal isn't exactly a no, after all and Turner wants a chance to win Elizabeth's heart.
The chase of conflicting interests is punctuated with a cast of colorful misfit characters. There's the Black Pearl pirate who is forever chasing after his wooden eye, the mute pirate who has trained his parrot to speak for him, and an array of serving wenches who have a bone to pick with Sparrow.
Academy Award-nominated screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek, Aladdin) have created wildly over-the-top characters who still somehow manage to stay just this side of cartoony. Depp's Sparrow is thoroughly flamboyant; it takes quite a while to realize that it's not an act. The character absolutely steals the show, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
You expect a movie based on a ride to incorporate elements from that ride, and Pirates does so beautifully. The cast of familiar characters the jail scene dog, the backstabbed skeleton, and even the redhead makes cameo appearances. Yet these characters are so well incorporated into the film that viewers who have never stepped foot into a Disney park will not feel left out of the joke.
Fans of the ride should immediately recognize not only the characters but also the environment. The film possesses that quality of light peculiar to the Disneyland ride: warm and golden alternating with flashes of halogen lightning. Even the caves of Isla de Meurta have that not-quite-real sparkle and texture that comes from plaster and mica. To watch this movie is to see the classic ride come to life, and future generations of tourists may not know which came first.
To watch this movie is to see the classic ride come to life, and future generations of tourists may not know which came first.
I have few quibbles with the movie. The climactic fight scene between Sparrow and Barbossa was entirely too long, and did nothing to advance the story once the key twist was revealed: OK, neither of you can be killed. We get it can we move along now? And that's too bad, because the scenes with either Depp or Rush are by far the most entertaining. Bloom's Turner is forced to play straight man to Sparrow's excesses, and Knightly's Elizabeth is so much more interesting when she's not playing the demure love interest.
While one expects that all modern Disney movies must leave room for a sequel, this movie ends not so much with a cliffhanger, but with what could be the opening scene to Pirates II.
Perhaps it's really the direct-to-video sequel of a movie based on a Disneyland ride that will mark end of Disney creativity as we know it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl opens on Wednesday, July 9.