Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Live Action Films: Blackbeard's Ghost

For our last review for Pirates' Month, we'll be looking at a very different sort of Disney pirate movie. This one isn't a swashbuckling adventure taking place long ago on the high seas, but instead a wacky comedy set at a college campus in the 1960s.

1968's Blackbeard's Ghost (directed by Robert Stevenson, apparently destined to direct a pirate movie with that name, and written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi from a story by Ben Stahl) was the sort of live action comedy that Disney really specialized in at the time - silly, inoffensive screwball farces full of big secrets and zany antics brought to life through low-tech special effects.

Blackbeard's Ghost tells the story of Steve Walker (Dean Jones), the newly-hired coach of the perennial losers on the Godolphin College track team. Walker settles in to a room in a hotel that was long-ago founded by the notorious pirate Blackbeard (I had never heard he moonlighted as an innkeeper before). A trio of little old ladies, Blackbeard's descendants, now own the inn but will soon be losing it to a bank, who will in turn sell it to shady businessman Silky Seymour (Joby Baker). Walker quickly falls for the charms of Jo Anne Baker (Susanne Pleshette) a local woman trying to help Blackbeard's descendants. Steve finds himself wishing he could find a way to assist Baker, save the inn, and coach his team to a successful season.

Before he can get started on any of that, though, he accidentally activates an old spell originally cast by one of Blackbeard's wives, who was also a witch. The ghost of the old pirate returns, with the catch that Steve is the only person who can see and hear him. The two will be stuck with one another, unless Blackbeard can somehow prove to have any goodness in his soul.

After some nutty misadventures with a traffic cop, Steve convinces Blackbeard that the spell could be broken if the ghost somehow helps the little old ladies save the inn from foreclosure. Blackbeard vows to do so. Conveniently an opportunity arises that will allow him to do this while helping Steve to a victory and Silky get his comeupance: Blackbeard steals the meager funds the old ladies have raised so far and bets them all on the Godolphin track team winning their upcoming match. He's not going to just sit by and hope Steve's coaching does the trick, though, the unseen spirit of Blackbeard will be on hand to make sure things turn out the way he wants - madcap hi-jinks ensue.

Ustinov and Jones are stuck together

Dean Jones had already starred in That Darn Cat and the hilariously-titled Monkeys, Go Home! (I might have to track that one down) for Disney, and would go on to star in The Shaggy D.A. and several of the Herbie the Love Bug movies. He's handsome and charismatic and does a serviceable job here playing a pretty bland leading man.

The movie really belongs to Peter Ustinov as Blackbeard, a much meatier role (the meat in question, by the way, is pure ham). Ustinov is bluster and aggression one moment, mincing or sobbing the next. He's a goofy cartoon character brought to life, but it's a lot of fun to watch his broad frame play out his many bits of physical comedy.

It isn't hard to know what to expect as Blackbeard's Ghost plays out - Blackbeard's invisible assistance during the climactic track meet reminded me a lot of the Flubber-assisted basketball victory in The Absent-Minded Professor - but Stevenson keeps the pace brisk enough to maintain interest, and Ustinov's performance remains delightful.

Blackbeard's ghost cheers on the team.

It's no cinema classic, but it is a decent amount of fun.

I give Blackbeard's Ghost seven out of ten mice:

Monday, May 30, 2011

Happy Memorial Day!

Enjoy this cartoon of Donald Duck serving in WWII:

And thanks to all the non-fictional men and women who serve.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The best Disney pirates you've never heard of

When I selected the options for this month's poll of your favorite Disney pirates (along the right-hand side. Have you voted yet?), I knew I was leaving out plenty of other possible choices - Pintel, Ragetti, Angelique, and more from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; Israel Hands, George Merry, and the rest from Treasure Island; any number of possible choices from the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction; that one fat pirate in Captain Hook's crew with the tiny fez. I also knew I would be leaving out my favorite Disney pirates of all, because as awesome as they are, it's likely very few of you have ever heard of them.

Here they are:

From left to right: Billy Books, Bad Mood t' Blackhearted, Captain Dante, Laverne Enchante, and Johnny Crimson.

Never heard of them? That's probably because they appeared for a very limited time, only in Disneyland. How limited of a time? Just one day.

Why? Because these characters were portrayed by honorary cast members, winners of 2007's Disney Dream Jobs Competition in the pirate category. They made videos explaining why they'd make great pirates, like this one from Brynne Geiszler (aka Captain Dante)...

or this one from Stephanie Bell Burke (aka Laverne Enchante):

20 were chosen as finalists by Disney and co-sponsor careerbuilder.com, and then the public voted on the winners. There were five categories in total, the others being parade performers, princesses in waiting, Haunted Mansion butlers and maids, and Jungle Cruise skippers. I know all about it, because I was one of the Jungle Cruise winners, but I've written about that before. This month is for talking about pirates.

The Dream Job winners as a whole were a great group. We chatted online before the trip, we bonded during our four days together, and many of us have kept in touch ever since. We all made friends in and out of our own categories, but it did seem as though, as a group, the pirates bonded the fastest and the closest. Appropriately, they were definitely the loudest and rowdiest group of all.

I wouldn't trade my Dream Job experience for anybody's, but each group's experience was different, and there were certainly aspects of the other's gigs that were appealing too. The butlers got a private, lights-on tour of the Haunted Mansion before the park opened that I very nearly begged to intrude upon. The princesses had wonderful interactions with adoring kids.

Captain Dante teams up with Captain Jack in Disneyland.

The pirates had a lot of fun perks: They were given specially-created characters just for them, each with their own individual curse (Billy Books was cursed with the ability to read, Captain Dante had to carry the skull of her dead husband who heckled her from beyond the grave, etc.). Their awesome costumes were all assembled from leftover pieces that had been used in the recently-wrapped Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. They performed alongside of Disneyland performers in a show on the Pirates' Lair on Tom Sawyer Island and performed improv with guests afterward. They got to ride the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in full costume and in character.

The couple of times we all appeared in the park together, no one paid much attention to we skippers or the Mansion butlers or maids. The parade performers and Princesses in waiting got some attention. The Pirates were treated like stars. People wanted their photos and autographs just as they would've from Disney characters they'd always known.

Here's a highlight video for Kenny White (aka Bad Mood t' Blackhearted)'s experience:

and here's the story of Billy Bean (aka Billy Books):

Now you also know about the five coolest Disney pirates that most people have never heard of. If you'd like to read more about their experiences Kenny White has written about his Dream Job adventure here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An open letter to Disney, re: Seal Team Six

UPDATE: Look - they listened to me!

Dear Disney,

Are you crazy? You've copyrighted the name Seal Team VI and will fight the Navy, the creators and trainers of the actual Seal Team VI for it? I imagine it would be possible for you to make a good chunk of cash exploiting the name Seal Team VI, the group that killed Osama Bin Laden. Apparently you're interested in selling T-shirts and games and whatnot. It could be very lucrative.

But... could that amount of money possibly be worth the ill will you'll generate with this exploitive cash grab? The Navy itself has decided to fight you for this. Here's my advice. Don't fight back. Give up. Let them have what is obviously theirs to begin with.

You have amazing lawyers, and no doubt they could put up a decent fight in the courtroom, but you will definitely lose the court of public opinion on this one.

I'm saying this, and I am obviously a huge fan. I love the work of your artists, both in film and theme park form. I love Disney so much that I have this blog all about your work, and I'm telling you this is a monstrously terrible idea. This is the kind of thing your absolute worst critics expect of you. Please don't prove them right. Please don't be evil.

If you're confused in the future, please consult with the nearest Cricket. Listen to him.

your concerned fan,

Live Action movies: Treasure Island

Disney's version of Treasure Island (directed by Byron Haskin, screenplay by Lawrence Edward Watkin), Robert Lewis Stevenson's definitive pirate tale, is an undisputed classic tale of high-seas adventure. Unfortunately, in the 61 years since its initial release, certain elements have not aged as well as others. Other aspects, fortunately, have timeless appeal.

Treasure Island is the story of Jim Hawkins, a young boy who befriends Billy Bones, a dying pirate staying at his mother's Inn. When Bones passes, he leaves Jim a map to the hidden treasure of the deceased pirate Captain Flint. Jim brings the map to Squire Trelawney, a local nobleman, and Dr. Livesy, a physician who had been attending to Billy Bones. The group decides to hire a ship and crew to set off in search of Flint's treasure.

Trelawney makes the unfortunate decision to hire one Long John Silver as the ship's cook, a man who also turns out to be Flint's former quartermaster - a pirate with an agenda of his own. Silver manages to get several other former members of Flint's crew onto the ship as well, and once the group arrives at Treasure Island, a battle begins over who will get the treasure.

The negatives first. The biggest problem with Treasure Island is that, when deciding on who to cast as Jim Hawkins, Disney looked no farther than the children it already had under contract. While little Bobby Driscoll was fine as the lead in Song of the South, and made for a lively voice for Peter Pan later, he was woefully miscast as the daring Hawkins. Driscoll has two facial expressions he exhibits in the movie: a confused squint, accompanied by an open mouth, and a beaming smile. There are a wide-range of expressions needed in addition to those (defiance, the sting of betrayal), but Driscoll's face seems to be attached to a switch with just these two settings. He's a cute, likeable little boy, but Jim Hawkins isn't an everyman - he's an extraordinary boy quickly becoming a man. Driscoll's just not up to it.

The two faces of Bobby Driscoll.

Then there's the musical score by Clifton Parker, whose presence is often the exact opposite of what it needs to be. During low-key scenes it's busy and distracting, and during certain key scenes of action or suspense it's almost entirely absent. The confrontation between Jim and Israel Hands, alone on the ship should be one of the most tense scenes in the movie, but it underwhelms due to the lack of underscoring. I'd love to see the exact same movie with a more competent score to see how much of a difference it makes to the overall product. I suspect it would make a huge difference.

It sounds like I'm trashing this movie, doesn't it? Let’s turn that around.

First of all, it's an adaptation of Stevenson's "Treasure Island," and a mostly faithful one at that. It's a great story of a young boy in an adventure way over his head, and the marvelous creation of the likable amoral pirate Long John Silver. That Disney made this movie in 1950, and stuck with the decision to try to make us like a Silver who will lie, steal, and kill to get what he wants is to the movie's credit. They do soften him somewhat compared to the novel, but the fact that they don't outright castrate him is a great relief.

Then there's Robert Newton, the actor chosen to play that key role. Newton's performance wasn't just the definitive portrayal of Long John Silver, it became cemented in the public's mind as what a pirate was. How they behaved, moved, and - most importantly - spoke. Any time you see someone playing a pirate, rolling their eyes, cocking their heads, or saying "Yar" or "arrr", they're borrowing from Robert Newton. There wasn't a pirate on screen anywhere that didn't owe him a debt until Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003.

Weirdly, Newton seems to be almost aware of the icon he's creating. At one moment, at the end of a prayer, he offers a solemn "arrrr-men," seemingly parodying his performance on it in the very movie that creates the modern pirate.

A great character in the hands of a great performer.

But Newton's Long John Silver is more than just a collection of ticks and quirks, as entertaining as those are. There's a real living character behind those rolling eyes. Silver is always thinking, and you almost hear the gears moving. Newton brings enormous charisma to the role, and because of it, the audience is always left guessing (just as Jim is) to the character's true nature. He's a bad man to be sure, but is there also kindness in him?

Geoffrey Wilkinson as Ben Gunn and Walter Fitzgerald as Squire Trelawney.

Walter Fitzgerald injects some additional bluster and humor as Squire Trelawney while Dennis O'Dea (Dr. Livesy) and Basil Sydney (Captain Smollett) ground the movie with more natural, human performances. Geoffery Wilkinson as marooned loon Ben Gunn is, to be fair, a little much.

Treasure Island was not only Disney's first foray into the world of cinematic pirates, it was also the studio's first fully live-action feature. Despite its age and the above acknowledged flaws, it's still very entertaining.

I give Treasure Island seven out of ten mice:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Live action films: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

First, the non-spoiler highlights: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seeks to reinvigorate the franchise in this, its fourth installment, by leaving behind much of the baggage of the previous films and focusing instead on a much more focused stand-alone adventure. The second and third Pirates seemed to feel required not only to return every character we'd met before and give them ample screen time, but also find ways to repeat many of the jokes and favorite bits we'd seen before. On Stranger Tides feels no such obligation, jettisoning most of the supporting characters, and making no attempt to squeeze in yet another "why is the rum gone?" joke or appearance of a dog carrying a ring of keys.

The series' standout creation, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, was the most important supporting character in the first film, a co-protagonist in the previous sequels, and here transitions into the role of the movie's central figure. I had misgivings about this, worrying that Sparrow as solo protagonist might be too much of a good thing. Stranger Tides manages to dodge that bullet, in part, by still surrounding Jack by a number of colorful characters (some old, mostly new), each with their own attitudes and motivations. It's other method of converting Jack to the center of this movie is to humanize him a bit too - still a very funny character, he's less the outright buffoon he'd become in the second and third films, and, more surprisingly, his motivations are no longer complete selfish.

Jack Sparrow and Barbossa are two of the few returning characters.

This is a Captain Jack who has grown, if ever-so slightly - something a true protagonist needs to do. What we love about Jack hasn't changed all that much, and the growth is logical after what he's been through.

Angelica and Blackbeard bring new blood to the series.

The most important other characters are Penelope Cruz as Angelica, Ian McShane as the legendary Blackbeard, and Geoffrey Rush returning as Barbossa. Angelica is both foil and possible romantic interest for Sparrow, and Cruz handles those demands with aplomb. McShane is the perfect choice for the role of Blackbeard, "the pirate that even pirates fear," but is sadly underutilized. As the returning Barbossa, Rush had both the juiciest role and the most commanding performance of the film. The decision to keep him around while few others returned was a wise one, and results in the most satisfying storyline in On Stranger Tides.

Star-crossed lovers Philip and Syrena.

A romantic subplot on the story's periphery between charismatic and attractive newcomers Philip (Sam Clafin) and Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) adds grace and sweetness without overpowering or bogging down the story's main action (as the Will/Elizabeth romance did, at times, in the previous installments).

On Stranger Tides is a worthy addition to the series, and a smart reinvention. This movie is both leaner and, at the same time, makes the world of the Pirates of the Caribbean seem like a bigger place. Even after four outings, I'm now looking forward to more again. I give Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides eight out of ten mice: (Spoilers discussed after the rating)

Spoilers ahoy!

How I love Barbossa's storyline in this movie. When we first meet him, he appears to be a shadow of his former self. Once a pirate rockstar, he's now sold out to King George - a privateer at the beck and call of the crown. What's more, when he lost the Black Pearl to Blackbeard, he also lost his leg. He seems a victim and a broken man who has given up on his passion and ideals.

Barbossa reveals his true motives in my favorite scene in the movie.

None of that is actually the case. Somewhere around the middle of the movie we learn the truth: Barbossa chopped off his own leg in order to escape from Blackbeard with his life. Suddenly that loss seems like an act of strength and defiance. Next we learn he's only signed up as a privateer in order to exploit the king's resources for his own desire to hunt down Blackbeard to mete out bloody revenge. Barbossa isn't a dog who's been tamed, he's the same wild wolf he's always been, and he's just waiting for he right time to pounce.

This mermaid does not want to be part of your world.

On Stranger Tides introduces mermaids into the Pirates of the Caribbean mythology. These Disney mermaids, though, are no relation of Ariel's, but are instead the darkest version of the mermaid, legend - the kind that seduce sailors and drag them into the depths for a watery death. They're also a little bit like vampires. The mermaid attack is the movie's eeriest and most exciting sequence. I love the shot from below the skiff full of pirate bait when we see shadowy mermaids circling the little boat like hungry sharks.

A movie scene looks a lot like this scene from Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean.

For fans of the theme park attraction, there's a very nice reference to the ride, woven organically into the story. At one point, Sparrow and Barbossa discover the ruins of Ponce de Leon's ship, and within they find the corpse of the explorer in his bed, examining part of the mountain of treasure that surrounds him with a magnifying glass. It's an image lifted from the opening cavern scenes of the ride with minor alterations.

A couple of interesting points implied by the story, but never overtly stated:

1) You probably noticed there's a kid among the group on Blackbeard's ship. It's never stated, but I assume that kid is along because he's the person Blackbeard intends to steal years from at the Fountain of Youth.

2) Barbossa tells the tale of Blackbeard taking the Pearl, but we don't get to see it. We can't assume anything then, but the implication is strong that through cutting off his leg, Barbossa was the only person to survive (along with the unkillable undead monkey). If everyone else was killed, that certainly implies the deaths of at least most of the people we saw last crewing the Black Pearl, including Pintel, Ragetti, Mr. Cotton, Marty, and those two British navy men who turned pirate right at the end of At World's End. Now if they want to bring any of those characters back, they can always invent a reason that they left Barbossa before the attack, but until we see them again, they're presumed dead.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for a good pirate yarn, but after On Stranger Tides, I'm already feeling something I didn't feel right after At World's End: A desire for more (and besides, we still haven't get to my favorite brand of supernatural pirates: ghosts).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Live action films: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

In my review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, I remarked on how grim an early scene was. I had forgotten for a moment that the third movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End opens with a scene in which a child is hung at the gallows for having some kind of association or other with pirates. Sure, we don't actually see the kid dangling from the noose, but it's completely clear that that's precisely what happens.


That's about as grim a scene as I expect we'll ever see from a movie under the Disney banner.

It's not the darkness that really dominates At World's End, though, it's the weirdness. All of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have flourishes of strangeness, but this time out that element comes right to the fore. At times the movie dives headlong into the surreal.

After we get the kiddie-hanging out of the way, we watch as Elizabeth and the freshly-resurrected Barbossa lead the usual band of pirates as they attempt to rescue Will from Jabba's palace - whoops - I mean Singapore pirate lord Sao Feng's hideout. The East Indian Trading Company (presumably way outside of their jurisdiction) raids the joint at the same time and the pirates all wind up teaming up to escape, then head out to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow from the land of the dead.

Too many Jacks.

In one of my favorite conceits of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, we learn that the old notion of the world being flat is actually true, and the crew sails off over the world's end to head to what is both literally and figuratively the other side. The truly surreal bit follows as we spend quite a while alone with Captain Jack in the underworld. It's a bleached-out wasteland where Jack has gone utterly mad, hallucinating a crew made up entirely of his duplicates. It's hard to tell if this is all meant to mean something or if the filmmakers are over-doing it in their attempt to fill the audience's desire for more Captain Jack Sparrow. Eventually Jack reunites with the rest of the pirate clan, and after a trippy flip of The Black Pearl, we're back to just the regular level of weirdness.

From here on out the scope of the movie expands to truly epic proportions. Pirate lords from around the globe gather. Becket, Sparrow, Turner, and Jones deal and betray and counteract one another in a variety of combinations that would be impossible to follow without a treasure map. The pirate lords free Calypso (trapped in the human form of Tia Dalma, surprising no one), and a massive final battle takes place amongst a raging storm. The pirates (our bloodthirsty, thieving good guys) prevail over the Trading Company, though not without a terrible cost or two.


Will and Elizabeth get a bittersweet finale. Barbossa gets the Pearl, but Jack gets the map to the fountain of youth, and we're left with the promise of future adventures to come.

Frankly, it all become a bit of a mess. By the third movie, Sparrow had gone from a risky, oddball creation to a genuine pop culture icon, and so his status in the movie has raised too. If you like Jack, the movie seems to reason, you'll love a screen filled with 50 Jacks!

Lots of new characters.

Meanwhile the menagerie of supporting characters must all be given their due as well. Barbossa is back (and boy do you realize how much he was missed in the second), and must be given lots to do. Will and Elizabeth's story must come to a satisfying romantic conclusion. Pintel and Ragetti must have their comic bits. Davy Jones is to be reckoned with. And there's Norrington, and Becket, and Governor Swan, and Tia Dalma, and Gibbs, and MAN there are a lot of characters fighting for screen time! Then there's the newcomers - Chow Yun Fat joins the cast as Sao Feng, Kieth Richards shows up for an enjoyable cameo as Jack's dad, and there's the large group of pirate lords.

Dirty dealing, double-crosses, and uh... it gets confusing.

As I said before, the double dealing and backstabbings that had been prevalent, but coherent in the previous outings here become convoluted and confusing. The weirdness gets weirder, the fights grow longer, the scale is enormous. The whole thing just gets bogged down by its grand ambitions.

And yet...

There's still a wild spark at the center of the whole thing that keeps me interested and entertained. The performances continue to be delightful, especially Geoffery Rush as Barbossa. The scene of him performing Will and Elizabeth's wedding amidst a fierce sea battle and howling with crazed laughter as he pilots the Pearl on the edge of a massive whirlpool and perfect pulp adventure fun.

Maniacal fun with Hector B.

And I have to admire a big-budget multi-million dollar franchise that has the guts to be unapologetically weird. It might not always work, but I'm happy they're willing to try.

In the end, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End leaves me feeling like I've been tossed about on a wild ride: it's dizzying, confusing, even a little exhausting, but it was still and awfully fun ride.

I give Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End 7 out of 10 mice:

Captain Jack sails off into the sunset.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Live action films: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has a great deal in common with its predecessor: a delightful performance by Johnny Depp, a tale of pirates mixed with supernatural weirdness, various groups at cross purposes with shifting alliances, and almost all of the same characters back for more. And yet, it's clear almost from the get-go that some things have changed.

Very near the start of this movie, there's a brief scene in which pirates are being tortured in cages and we see one get his eye plucked out by ravenous crow. It's gruesome stuff. Next up we see Jack Sparrow make his first appearance in this movie, popping out of a floating coffin. The specter of death continues to hang over the entire movie in a way that it didn't over Curse of the Black Pearl, despite that movie being full of walking skeletons.

This time out, Will and Elizabeth are being charged for their act of helping Jack escape the gallows at the end of Curse of the Black Pearl. The East India Trading Company tells Will he'll only be pardoned if he tracks down Sparrow and brings back his magic compass. Jack, meanwhile, is on the hunt for a key that will unlock a chest that contains the heart of the legendary Davy Jones. Why? Jack made a (really stupid) deal with Jones that if the Jones raised his ship after it sank and let him captain it for ten years, he would then serve on Jones' ship (the Flying Dutchman) for 100 years. Now he wants to find Jones' estranged heart and use it as leverage to blackmail his way out of the pact.

How is this "disguise" fooling anybody?

Elizabeth escapes her prison and pursues too, hiding amongst a group of sailors who are too stupid to realize she is a woman, despite knowing that a woman is hiding among them and despite the fact that she completely looks and sounds like a woman at all times.

We get a ton of new characters thrown at us too. There's Tom Hollander as fussy East Indian Trading Company bad guy Cutler Becket and David Schofield as his chief enforcer, Mercer, who I think is supposed to be coldly terrifying, but doesn't get to do much of consequence. Stellan SkarsgÄrd surfaces as Bootstrap Bill, Will's estranged father, and this solid actor gets to mostly sit around with a starfish glued to his face while looking sad.

The adorably weird Tia Dalma.

More fun is Naomie Harris as the mysterious Tia Dalma, a weird woman with some sort of connection to the supernatural who gets a couple of scenes consulting the principals about their troubles. She talks in odd rhythms and rolls her eyes wildly and seems to be having a grand time. Plus, despite a weird black ooze dripping from her mouth, somehow managed to make her character pretty sexy.

Davy Jones(ZUH)!

Most fun of all the new additions, though, is Bill Nighy (and some computers) as the villainous pirate grim reaper Davy Jones. Jones is a wonderfully imaginative creation, a pirate with squid for a head (its tentacles suggesting a beard), a massive lobster claw for one hand, and covered in barnacles. Despite all the inhuman, CGI weirdness painting over him, Nighy's performance still shines through and it really what makes Jones so memorable. His movements are erratic and full of little sudden tics. He adds an extra syllable to any sentence that ends in a consonant. And staring out of that inhuman face are utterly human eyes that can, without a word spoken, convey the deepest longing or the fiercest anger.

While I'm quite fond of Davy Jones' look, I can't say the same for the design of his crewmen. They're so full of tiny, busy, scraggly detail that I find them - much like modern film incarnation of the Transformers - hard to even look at. Conceptually, they're so similar to Jones. The result, though, is miles off the mark.

Davy Jones, mournful musician.

My favorite moment in Dead Man's Chest is a brief scene of Davy Jones, alone in his chambers in the Flying Dutchman, playing a macabre tune on a massive pipe organ, playing the keys not with his hands, but with his flowing beard of tentacles. It's a completely kooky, pulpy, oddball scene and I love it for all its joyful weirdness.


Not everything about Dead Man's Chest quite lives up to its predecessor, though. The tone is wildly uneven - some scenes lean too far to the gruesome (like that literally eye-popping opener) while at other times the comedy tips a bit too far into cartoonish slapstick. The story is also a lot less focused. For the first outing we had a central protagonist in Elizabeth, with Will and Jack's supporting stories working in tandem with hers. This time all three function as separate protagonists. Plus we've got two lead villains with completely separate motivations. It's not incomprehensible, but it does get a little muddy at times.

Still, the performances and that mix of swashbuckling action and supernatural threats adds up to another enjoyable ride, if not quite as satisfying or as sure as the first outing. I give Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest 7 out of 10 mice.

Does anyone else think the filmmakers may have been using Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as their model on how to build the second movie of a trilogy? Let's look at the similarities: Both take the roguish supporting character that everyone liked best from the first movie (Han Solo and Jack Sparrow) and elevate them to the role of co-protagonist. Both send the co-protagonists on separate journeys. Both take the three stars and kind of sow the seeds of a love-triangle amongst them. Both give the other male lead the surprise return of a sinful father they'd like to redeem. Both end with the loveable rogue seemingly lost to a dreadful end and the other good guys planning a desperate, dangerous rescue.

I think they meant to do that, don't you?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Triumphant return to Tiki tradition! Iago to go go!

Every longtime fan of the Disney parks has seen thing go away that they wish would come back (top of my list: The Adventurers Club and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea). It's sad to see a beloved attraction disappear, sometimes not even leaving a trace behind.

It can be worse, on the other hand, to see a once-beloved attraction mutate into something unbearable. That's what happened to the once quaint and loveable Enchanted Tiki Room Tropical Serenade in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. In 1998, the old show shut down as opened up as The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management. The old birds and fountains and tiki gods were all still there, but the show was dominated by the addition of two birds from animated features, Zazu from The Lion King and Iago from Aladdin. The new show was predominantly about Iago screaming and trying to make the square old show more hip.

It was unbearable. It was assaultive. I only saw it once, and that was way too many times.

Iago with a bullhorn. Great.

Then, earlier this year, fate intervened. A fire broke out in the Tiki room, damaging the Iago figure beyond repair (ironically, there were two Iago figures in the attraction. One of which is supposed to appear singed by lightening. It was the other one that burned).

This weekend, Disney announced they were doing what everyone hoped - kicking out the "new" management and when the attraction reopens it will be "a version reminiscent of the original show." Now that word "reminiscent" is a little worrisome, but educated guesses suggest Florida will be getting a show like the one currently playing in Disneyland: that is the original show minus just one number (the Offenbach).

That would be excellent. And even if it's not that, even if it's a new show that's genuinely reminiscent of the original, well that will still be a huge improvement over The Iago Screaming Show.

I'm looking forward to how it turns out, and grateful that on my next visit to Walt Disney World I'll be able to return to "where the birds sing words and the flowers croon, in the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room!"

Now can we have the Adventurers Club back too?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Live Action Films: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have become such a huge cultural phenomenon that it's already becoming easy to forget what a surprise the first installment really was. Public expectations were pretty low - when was the last time there had been a decent pirate movie? Critics eyes were rolling loop-dee-loops at the notion of a movie based on a theme park attraction.

But then trailer came along... it didn't look awful, but trailers are often misleading. But then there was the cast - the always-interesting Johnny Depp and Oscar winner Geoffery Rush? It seemed as though a decent movie was possible, but doubts remained rampant.

And then the movie was actually released, and those fears and sneers were mostly forgotten. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, under the confident direction of Gore Verbinski, tells an engaging story full of twists and turns, double-crosses and secret motivations, but always easily followed. Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Russio, it's the story of a young woman who yearns to escape her corsets and find adventure who gets caught up in the middle of a plan by a desperate batch of pirates attempting to return the final piece of a treasure they'd stolen long ago so they can break the terrible curse the act placed on them. There's plenty of thrilling swashbuckling action, beautiful scenery, and snappy dialogue. Above all else, this movie is simply a great deal of fun.

The thing that really connected - the element that made took pirates from being a fun couple of hours at sea to being an inescapable pop-culture juggernaut, was the performances of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. He staggers about whether on land or sea as if he's trying to find his footing in the midst of an unseen tempest. He's effeminate and wearing a thick coating of eyeliner. He slurs his words as if at all times slightly intoxicated. He is, in short, like no pirate we'd ever seen before.

The entrance of Jack Sparrow is one of the great all time film entrances. We first see him standing above the sails on a ship, one hand holding the mast, both eyes squinting purposefully toward the horizon. The wind blows his thick dreadlocks and he's lit from behind. He looks utterly commanding, dramatic, and heroic. Moments later the camera pulls back and we see that what we assumed was a mighty pirate vessel is, in fact, a very tiny skiff... and it's sinking fast. Jack jumps down and begins frantically bailing water. The commanding, heroic image is immediately tossed aside and replaced with that of a fool barely keeping his situation together. Seeing the dock approaching, Jack returns to the post atop the sails, and time his exit from the ship so he can simply step off of the ship and onto the dock just as the ship disappears. In doing so, he manages to look cool and in charge again.

Captain Jack's iconic entrance.

And that's Captain Jack Sparrow in a nutshell. He's impressive and charismatic, he's foolish and reckless, he's a master at improvisation and impossibly lucky. That's almost everything you need to know about Jack, and you learn it all before he even speaks a single word.

The great Geoffery Rush as Hector Barbossa.

The other standout performance is Geoffery Rush as the villainous Captain Barbossa. Barbossa is a much more traditional pirate film portrayal with all the requisite "yars" and "har hars," but he Rush manages to take all those old notes and really make them sing. Barbossa is desperate, cursed, and half dead, but thanks to Rush's scenery chewing relish, he's also more alive than anyone else on screen. Watching Curse of the Black Pearl again, with Depp's performance no longer a complete surprise, it becomes clear how important Rush's performance is to the overall piece.

Such chemistry. Ahem.

Meanwhile the film's actual leads - Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth Swan and Orlando Bloom as Will Turner aren't quite so engaging. Knightly is given little to do but stick out her chin in defiance while looking pretty and Bloom is relegated to earnest yearning while also looking pretty. The roles are the blandest of the movie's major characters to begin with, and the performances don't do much to elevate them. To be fair, with so many wild characters filling up the screen around them, perhaps we needed saner characters for contrast. Still, Elizabeth and Will's romance never quite soars.

But that's of little importance in a movie filled with ambulatory skeletons, sword fights, madcap schemes, a mischievous monkey, cursed treasure an so much fun. This movie never takes itself too seriously, but seriously enough to never be stupid either. It knows just what it wants to be, and carefully walks that line between enjoyable pulp and over-the-top camp with surer footing that Captain Jack could ever muster.

I give Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl 8 out of 10 mice:

A few side notes:

Dude. You are a creeper.

1. How much of a creeper is Captain Norrington? In the opening scene he's a full grown man and naval officer while Elizabeth is a tiny little girl. Later, she's grown up and he's obsessed with her. Granted, he magically seems not to have aged as much as everyone else, but it still seems pretty skeevy.

2. Love the references to the ride, most of which are subtly woven in. Everyone catches the dog in the jail, of course. I think my favorite is when skeletal Barbossa drinks the wine and we see it pouring down through his ribcage, just as we see a skeleton doing in the attraction.

Anamaria, being informed she's not in the sequels.

3. What happened to Anamaria after this movie? Everyone, but everyone else comes back except for this intriguing female pirate. I wonder, since Zoe Saldana has gone on to become a bit of a bigger name since this movie, if they might consider bringing her back someday in one of the as-yet-unmade sequels. She had the potential to be an excellent romantic foil for Jack.

If you care to buy Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: