Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

If you want to hear a bizarre and twisted tale, try that of the Pirates franchise: as one of three films Disney pushed out in two years that are based on Disney theme-park attractions, it seemed destined to fail just like the others, The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion. First, it was based on a theme-park attraction; that didn't bode well at all. Then there was the fact that it was a pirate movie, a genre that had long been dead and most people assumed that there wouldn't be a revival anytime soon (and, honestly, there still hasn't been: the franchise is basically the only source of pirates in cinema as of the last 10 years). Then, as what should have been the final nail in the very-expensive coffin, it was Disney's first-ever PG-13 film; there was no way families would go see this together. Coming less than a week after Dreamworks' animated seafaring (and more family-friendly) film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, there was no reason why this movie should succeed. But what do you know, it turned out to be surprisingly excellent, and Disney laughed all the way to the bank to the tune of over $300 million in domestic grosses. And so the lucrative franchise was born, spawning two less-inspired (but not necessarily the messes they were made out to be) sequels with a third coming next year.
Given how little we've gotten in return from the sequels, its quite refreshing to revisit the original in all of its swashbuckling glory. For those few of you who have never seen it, the film revolves around a trio of interconnected characters: Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, still a fresh-faced relative newcomer), the daughter of a British governor in the Caribbean; Will Turner (a typically wooden Orlando Bloom), a man who was rescued as a child by Elizabeth's father's ship and holds a dark secret; and Captain Jack Sparrow (a superior Johnny Depp), a swaggering, inept pirate seeking to reclaim his cursed ship, which was taken by the malicious Captain Barbossa (a typically scenery-chewy Geoffrey Rush). Barbossa is looking to reverse the ship's curse, which makes all of its crew immortal, though in moonlight they become zombified versions of themselves. Therefore, it is up to our three heroes to make them mortal and defeat them once and for all.
It helps, though, if you don't think too hard about the story, because the movie is terrific fun. Director Gore Verbinski makes the excellent choice to make the movie feel like a roller coaster itself, careening back and forth and making several twists and turns through funny, dramatic, and truly creepy scenes (this is best proven in the scene in which the nature of the curse is revealed, as Elizabeth is tossed and turned through the action on-board the quite-literal ghost ship). The high-seas action is well-staged and well-executed, creating a real tension that keeps you glued to your seat. Its more or less the perfect summer movie: all fun without too much deep thought required. Its unfortunate that the sequels got so bogged down in contrived, broad arcs that tried to turn the films into heady fun rather than escapist fun; it was a plan that was really never going to work.
Captain Jack (Depp)
Of course, it also doesn't hurt that Johnny Depp steals the show in the best performance of his career so far. Jack Sparrow could have easily been jokey comic relief, a role taken on by an of-the-moment comedian that would fade from memory as soon as the theater lights came back on. Instead, Depp takes the character and creates one of the most original, full-fledged, layered characters ever put to screen. And Depp's performance is a true marvel to behold: he plays Jack with a glint in his eye, as if he knows something that you don't and can barely keep it to himself. He's the main reason why pirates became cool again, and the more you see him swagger about, unwittingly getting into and out of trouble, the more and more impressed you are at just how good he really is. Depp's made a career out of playing weirdos, and there is no weirdo that can top Captain Jack. No wonder its the role that finally landed him his first Oscar nomination.
On a personal note, I should add that this was one of the films that got me interested in movies to begin with. I was in seventh grade when then came out, about to move on to the eighth, and this (along with a few others) helped make me fall in love with cinema. I know, its supposed to be some European film that's emotionally deep and complex, but what can I say? It took a pirate to start my obsession.


Millie said...

I love this movie.

The sequels...ehhh...not so much/ (I will of course pay a lot of money to see the fourth in theaters though! ;-D)

Captain Jack is just brilliance.

And pretty much every line of this film is instantly quotable.

Great review!

Jason H. said...

I'm really trying to keep my expectations down for the next one. I just don't believe that it will be any better than the other two sequels; if anything, it sounds as if it could be worse.

That being said, I'll still see it opening weekend.