PREPARE TO BE BLOWN OUT OF THE WATER.
One of the most tiresome ideas of the 1990s was turning video games into movies. How many of those worthless adaptations have we been forced to suffer through? Perhaps Street Fighter (1994) was the nadir. And then some marketing genius at Disney comes up with the ridiculous idea of turning one of their amusement park attractions into a movie. How brilliant commercially and moronic artistically is that?
Turns out that the idea was an all-out success. The film begins a few hundred years ago when a boy called Will Turner is pulled out of the ocean, the sole survivor of a pirate attack. Elizabeth Swann, the young daughter of Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce), takes a medallion as a gift from Will. A few years later, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is about to marry a man she doesn’t love; Will (Orlando Bloom) has become a blacksmith and thus unworthy to marry her, which has not stopped him from falling in love with her. When Elizabeth one day accidentally falls in the water, Will’s medallion goes with her and, when it hits the ocean, starts beckoning. That piece of gold is magical and the damned crew of the Black Pearl, a pirate ship, heeds the call. They set sail for Governor Swann’s town, loot it and kidnap Elizabeth. Now that the pirates have the medallion, they hope to be able to lift the curse that makes them undead. Meantime, Will goes after them to rescue Elizabeth with the unreliable help of the Black Pearl’s former captain, the legendary Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who has a bone to pick with the current captain, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).
Director Gore Verbinski made The Mexican (2001) overlong and he repeats his mistake with this pirate epic; the final sequences are pretty superfluous. But it is a credit to him that the movie nevertheless is hugely enjoyable.
Making Ray Harryhausen proud
What makes the film special is the actors, the visual effects and the humor. It is a virtual celebration of the pirate movie genre and every cliché is intact. But having the motley crew of the Black Pearl turn into rotting yet very strong and vibrant corpses whenever the moonlight hits them is a novel idea, and the CGI makes it work beautifully. Ray Harryhausen would be proud. The supporting cast delivers the funniest moments, there’s like several Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello routines going on here and there… and then there’s Depp. He plays Captain Jack in such a surprising way that he even managed to bag an Oscar nomination. His pirate is a laidback Keith Richards, complete with heavy makeup and effeminate, nonchalant moves; he sounds like he’s constantly drunk and couldn’t care less. He’s such a treat to watch.
Rush chews the scenery as Barbossa, but we expect him to do it and he’s welcome to it. Bloom and Knightley are a cute couple; lesser actors would just have been in the way, but they never are.
Sure, there’s a bloated feel to the film at times, as if the filmmakers had a hard time focusing on what’s most important, and the music is a disappointment whenever it veers away from Hans Zimmer’s thunderous theme… but the sheer accomplishment of turning a hopelessly contrived idea into a rollicking adventure compensates for that.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl 2003-U.S. 143 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio. Music: Klaus Badelt, Hans Zimmer. Cast: Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa), Orlando Bloom (Will Turner), Keira Knightley, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Davenport.
Trivia: Michael Keaton, Jim Carrey and Christopher Walken were allegedly considered for the part of Sparrow. Followed by four sequels, starting with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006).
BAFTA: Best Makeup/Hair.
Quote: “You’d best start believing in ghost stories, miss Turner. You’re in one!” (Rush to Knightley)
Last word: “Everything they say about water is true – nothing stays where you put it. This movie has 700 visual effect shots, but there are probably 150 you notice – 500 effects shots are just getting rid of city lights or hotels in the background. My approach was just to keep shooting. If there’s an oil tanker driving through the background and it’s going to cost an hour of shooting to wait for it to clear the frame, you roll and paint it out later on the computer. That was the only way to keep the thing on schedule. Visual effects are just another tool in the chest now.” (Verbinski, BBC Films)