How desperate, one might wonder, has Hollywood become that it now makes movies based on theme-park rides?
It's one thing to escape the heat on air-conditioned boats that drift past robotic pirates quietly clacking as they wield swords, chug rum, chase women, and sing a round of “Yo ho's”; it's quite another to stretch such simple escapism into a 21/4 hour, $125 million film.
Or is it?
The Pirates of the Caribbean, a longtime favorite ride at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney's dashing new adventure movie, have only the broadest, most generic connections. They both have pirates, swords, sailing ships, tropical backdrops, and lots of mayhem, as well as Disney's golden name and marketing might.
But screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek, Aladdin) use the park ride as a mere launching point for the film, giving producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Mexican) plenty of material to work with. It's not just a fast-paced tale of crossing swords and sailing the high seas, it also has the requisite love interest, a lighthearted touch and charming sense of humor, and a bizarre, supernatural twist that makes its showdowns unlike anything Erroll Flynn ever faced.
The plot centers on the infamous Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a swaggering, staggering buccaneer on a mission to recapture his stolen ship, the Black Pearl. With beaded hair, scuzzy gold teeth, slurred speech, and a perpetual glazed look on his face, Depp is sort of a pirate Columbo, hiding his formidable wit and cunning behind a facade of clumsiness.
His antagonist, the scalawag who stole his ship and left him to rot on a deserted island, is Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). An Oscar winner for his starring role in Shine, Rush gives Barbossa a menacing mix of wily diplomacy and cavalier brutality, and his marvelously gravel-voiced “Harrr!” is pirate-perfect.
The movie opens with a British naval ship warily creaking through fog-shrouded waters, a young girl at the bow softly singing (one of the few Disney ride tie-ins), “Yo ho, a pirate's life for me ...”). They come across a boy adrift at sea strapped to a piece of wood, then spot the burning hulk of a ship from which he came - victim of a pirate raid.
The lass finds a gold medallion around the boy's neck, decorated with a skull and crossbones, and instinctively protects him by tucking the pirate symbol away.
The story fast forwards. The girl, Elizabeth Swann (played by 18-year-old Keira Knightly, also starring in Bend It Like Beckham), is the daughter of Port Royal's stuffy governor, Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce), and the doting father is grooming her to marry the British fleet's rising young star, Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport).
The boy that was rescued at sea, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom - Legolas in Lord of the Rings), works in town as a blacksmith and although sparks seem to fly between him and Elizabeth, class differences keep them oceans apart.
On the day Norrington is set to propose, Sparrow steps off the mast of a sinking ship and struts onto a Port Royal dock, and the quaint British colony is never quite the same.
As the commodore recites his carefully rehearsed proposal, Elizabeth passes out. He thinks it's her nerves; it's really her corset. She does a free fall into the lagoon, and Sparrow dives in and saves her.
Despite Sparrow's heroism, the authorities arrest him. Norrington, looking down his nose, tells Sparrow, “You're the worst pirate I ever heard of!” Sparrow waves a finger in the air and boasts, “But you have heard of me!”
Sparrow escapes by briefly taking Elizabeth hostage, dueling Turner in a gem of a sword match (when Turner complains that Sparrow cheated, Sparrow replies, “I'm a pirate!”), and stealing a British ship.
The chase through the sun-dappled Caribbean is on.
While the movie gives its due to Disneyland and the old black-and-white pirate flicks, it rarely follows traditional or predictable paths. When Elizabeth is taken aboard the Black Pearl, for example, good-guy Turner figures it takes a pirate to catch a pirate and joins forces with the evil Sparrow to find the fair maiden. Along the way, Turner discovers to his dismay that he's got some buccaneer blood in his veins after all.
Another twist involves the gold medallion, which had been collecting dust in a wooden box in Elizabeth's bedroom. It turns out to be the last of 882 pieces from a cursed Aztec treasure that had been stolen by the Black Pearl crew. The pirates have been scouring the Caribbean for years, desperate to find and return the booty - an odd situation for pirates - in hopes of lifting the curse that keeps them trapped in a netherworld between life and death.
“All the pleasures of the world could not slake our lust,” Barbossa sighs, nor will the curse let them rest in peace. Their tortured existence is revealed only in the moonlight, when they are seen as walking, talking skeletons covered with bits and pieces of decayed flesh.
Verbinski at times gets carried away with the fight scenes, lingering on swordplay and the chilling transformation of the cursed crew. In all other respects, however, the movie flows swiftly and easily with lots of well-timed laughs.
Fans of the Disney ride will be amused by the few sly references, including a scene in which a band of imprisoned pirates try to coax a dog to bring them the jailer's keys (to which Sparrow scoffs: “That dog is never going to move!”).
The battle to win Elizabeth's love is the least surprising element of the film. Does anyone actually think the beautiful young noblewoman with a rebellious streak will do as her father wishes and marry the commodore? But the predictable resolution is a harmless crowd-pleaser.
The sword fights and cannon fire, the witty quips and asides, and the ghostly turn of events make Pirates of the Caribbean a kissing cousin to Indiana Jones' encounters with the Nazis and the spiritual guardians of the Lost Ark.
Yo, ho, a pirate's life looks like a good choice for Hollywood moguls in search of box-office treasure.