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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 07/09/03 13:11:07

"Adventure Films Haven't Been THIS Much Fun In A While"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Shiver me timbers. Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me. OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way I can properly invoke parlay…no, I mean the spirit of the new film. Raised eyebrows can be understandable since the title and what can be referred to as a premise stems from the classic ride at the Disney theme parks on both coasts. First television shows, now three-minute attractions, next will be commercials adapted to feature length. Disney’s Mission to Mars film shared the same name as an extinct attraction at the parks. But neither filmmakers nor studio executives will claim any responsibility for any relation to rides living or dead. They should have no such animosity towards this actual “adaptation” since Pirates of the Caribbean delivers exactly what it promises and more.

I don’t know if it’s possible to dissatisfy fans’ memories of a ride they likely rode once years and years ago, but its admirable to make the effort of incorporation past the actual name. Johnny Depp (who gets a g-reat entrance) plays disgraced pirate Jack Sparrow. He’s still lively as ever, but without a ship and a crew his livelihood is pretty moot. He (barely) comes aboard a town where the Governor’s daughter, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) has always been fascinated with pirates and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) shares the same fascination with her since he was rescued in a shipwreck many years ago.

Jack rescues Elizabeth from an unfortunate corset mishap and is rewarded for his trouble by her fiancé-to-be, Naval officer Mallot (Brye Cooper), a stickler for the rule of law who would like nothing more than to hang Sparrow for his past deeds. When the legendary Black Pearl and her gang of pirates shows up to loot the village and claim a final piece of Aztec gold, Elizabeth is kidnapped leaving Jack and Will with their own motives to plot a rescue.

Turns out Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew have suffered the greedy man’s curse of Cortez’s gold, leaving them as members of the undead whose true forms can only be seen in the light of a full moon. “Aye, blood money and cursed it be…dead men tell no tales,” and even the reminiscence of the imprisoned pirates trying to cajole keys from a dog’s mouth is enough from the ride to fashion this story and spark those childhood memories of the singing skeletons you drifted past while you awaited those secret plume drops in the darkness.

The film version doesn’t make you wait until the final moments, instead serving up enough excitement for me to actually use the term “action-packed.” About 40 minutes pass before Barbossa and his men arrive on the scene, but we get swordplay and Depp before then. Then we get looting, cannonballs, surprises, swashbuckling and everything a lover of adventure tales crave for. If the little boy doesn’t come to the surface when two pirate ships square off side-by-side with cannons drawn, then he’s dead.

Director Gore Verbinski (MouseHunt, The Ring) doesn’t just serve up the demand for spectacular action sequences, but has an impeccable hand with storytelling. The screenplay is right out of storybookland and Verbinski keeps his four main characters in check, each receiving enough time to get their stories straight, while saving plenty of room for the colorful supporting players who liven things up. Nothing seems forced nor does anyone seem bored with their lot. Only Kevin Reynolds might have been able to do a more admirable job with the material.

Johnny Depp is certainly an actor who never gives a boring performance. Giving 125% and either using an accent or, at times, his whole body to accentuate his role, Depp is such a pleasure to watch that he’s one of the few actors worth high-tailing it to the theater once you discover his involvement in a project. Playing Sparrow as sort of a half-mad/half-drunk, but completely full-of-himself miscreant, Depp is hysterically active even in the background without dialogue. And he gets to compliment all the actors by thankfully getting full scenes with all of them. Geoffrey Rush could have taken his Captain way, WAY over-the-top but instead playfully dials it down like a big kid who got elected the leader. Bloom has enough personality (as he does as Legolas in Lord of the Rings) to avoid being just another vanilla-coated heartthrob and Keira Knightley has a strong and beautiful screen presence as the tough-willed heroine that’s going to garner her a long career.

Tremendous props should also go forth to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who usually specializes in dark, brooding portraits like The Crow and Dark City. With Pirates of the Caribbean, the curtains are raised and the light shines in. Combined with the production design and the marvelous FX paying tribute to Ray Harryhausen (and a couple nods to Sam Raimi), Wolski gives it the distinction of being one of the most handsome-looking films I’ve seen in quite a while. Even in the dreariness of the caves and the company of the Black Pearl, the colors shine through in a way only witnessed on certain DVDs.

Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have built up a solid resume. Anyone who can boast association with Disney’s Aladdin, Small Soldiers, The Mask of Zorro, The Road to El Dorado and Shrek is worthy of our attention. Their script for Pirates borrows elements from many of their past works and is in tone with the liveliness of Zorro while improving on their lackluster reimagining of Treasure Planet. With Shrek 2 on tap for 2004 and Dreamworks’ animated elephant adventure, Tusker, on the way, Rossio and Elliott are continuing to find ways to bring childhood imagination to life.

Pirates of the Caribbean is exactly the sort of film I loved growing up with and, in many respects, love even more today when the artform has all but been replaced with hack directors and quick-buck screenwriters who could never appreciate those old films in the same way with the way they pillage and plunder them on the big screen. Verbinski, Rossio, Elliott, Depp and everyone involved clearly saw films like Indiana Jones, The Goonies, Jason and the Argonauts and the classics of Errol Flynn with the same eyes that I did. This is a helluva enjoyable flick that (dare I say it) doesn’t require the knowledge of a trip down that old boat ride since it creates its own ride all by itself. So drink up, me 'arties, this is one of the more enjoyable films of the year.

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