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:

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