Pirates of the Caribbean
Running Time: 133 minutes
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Screenplay by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, and Jay Wolpert, from a story by Stuart Beattie. Based on the popular Disneyland amusement ride.
CAPSULE REVIEW: B
Bear with me. I’ve a thing or two to say about this genre before I get to the main event.
I love the Pirate Genre! Not so much for the films we’ve seen produced, but for its unmined potential and what it could become. After all, few people even gave much notice to the Fantasy Genre until Lord of the Rings.
Back in 1998, I’d tried pitching my own pirate script, Corsair, around Hollywood to no avail. It had two strikes against it. First of all, the genre had fallen on hard times, reflected by the last two swashbucklers that made it to the screen. Pirates (1986) and the equally tedious Cutthroat Island (1995) seemed to be the death knell for the genre. Nobody wanted to risk their cash on a genre that consistently flopped in the box office. Secondly, people thought (and still believe) the genre only appeals to a 12-15 year old audience and reject any material that tries to raise the bar or push genre boundaries.
Pirates of the Caribbean tackles both problems head on. With the backing of Disney, marketing gurus assured worried producers that the film had a built-in market. And, the PG-13 rating makes sure it won’t offend the sensibilities of those who come expecting some light comic fare that’s acceptable for children.
It’s a sad state of affairs when you can only get a story greenlighted if it’s based on a comic book, a video game, or an amusement park ride. But, alas, with rare exception, Hollywood is too gutless to let a story ride on its own merits. It’s pretty dismal for a spec script writer. In the last year, we got The Country Bears, which went quickly to video. Soon we’ll be subjected to The Haunted Mansion, probably to be followed by adaptations of The Matterhorn, Splash Mountain, The Twirling Teacups…and horror of horrors… It’s a Small World! I remember the good old days when movies inspired amusement rides, not vice versa. Maybe I’m getting too old…
This film is what I expected from a Jerry Bruckheimer production. It is full of CGI special effects and large explosions. However, while the storyline is only fair-to-middlin’, the dialogue is witty, and has fun with the genre’s clichés. The best part of the film is the casting, which is extremely good. Johnny Depp plays a rather flamboyantly swishy Captain Jack Sparrow to comic effect and Geoffrey Rush lends just the right amount of menace to the villainous Barbarosa.
Altogether, I have to say it is the best pirate film that’s come out in recent years. It’s not a spectacular film and it probably won’t get an academy award or go on the AFI list of the best movies of all time, but it’s fun and will hopefully spur more interest in the genre itself.
My own script, Corsair (which can be read elsewhere on this site), was set in 1668. Pirates of the Caribbean is set many years later, although a date is not given. They mention a “Pirate Code” that was passed down by Morgan (one of the two main villains in my earlier script) which hints that events take place at the end of the piracy era, before the turn of the century.
The film begins with an English ship sailing to Port Royal. We are introduced to a young (about age 10) Elizabeth Swann (the Governor’s Daughter). She is singing the “Yo Ho Ho” tune from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride we are all familiar with. A deckhand chastens her for causing bad luck and drawing pirates towards them. Elizabeth’s father shoos away the deckhand and she is reassured by the ship’s Captain that any pirates they encounter will be safely hung before they can do any mischief. Soon after this, they see flotsam and jetsam from a burning ship and discover a young (also about age 10) Will Turner, unconscious and floating on a piece of debris.
The supposed culprit of the disaster is the infamous Black Pearl. A ghostly pirate ship manned by skeletons!
Elizabeth finds a gold Aztec skull medallion around Will’s neck and takes it before anyone can see, because she is afraid the gold will mark him as a pirate and they will hang him.
Elizabeth (Bend It Like Beckam’s Keira Knightley) is now in her early 20s and being fitted with a corset for a ceremony at which the young Commodore Norrington, whom her father wants her to marry, is being presented with a ceremonial sword.
Elizabeth is less impressed with Norrington than with the maker of the sword, Will Turner (Lord of the Rings’ Orlando Bloom). After his rescue, Will was apprenticed to a swordmaker in town where he conveniently took up the only occupation, outside being a landed gentleman, that allows one to learn fencing.
Will is dashing and in love with her, but Elizabeth cannot decide between duty or her heart.
Then, floating in to Port Royal on a sinking ship, turns up Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). With his drunken/swishy/rock star attitude, Depp becomes the main reason to watch the film and his comedic touches go a long way towards forgiving the film’s other flaws. Captain Jack is in search of a ship to replace the one he’s lost and instantly sets his sights on the HMS Interceptor, the fastest English ship in the Caribbean.
However, before Sparrow can make progress towards stealing the ship or Elizabeth can make up her mind on who to marry, Fate intervenes. Or rather, lack of oxygen from Elizabeth’s tightly fitted corset makes the decision for her. While talking to Norrington, she faints and falls over the side of a fortress wall. Plunging several stories, she narrowly misses some coral reefs and splashes near Sparrow, who dives in and rescues her.
For his service, Norrington arrests Sparrow and prepares to hang him the next morning. Sparrow expects this, however, and makes an escape attempt. The chase takes him through the streets and eventually he ducks into an empty blacksmith shop, hoping to break off the manacles Norrington placed on him. He does so, but then encounters Will and has a swordfight. At the end of their dual, however, the old blacksmith wakes out of a drunken stupor and breaks a bottle over Sparrow’s head, subduing him for the authorities.
However, Sparrow’s arrest is only a distraction from the main story. When Elizabeth fell into the water, she was wearing the gold piece taken from Will in the beginning of the film. Outside of the water, it was just a dormant hunk of metal, but the second it touched seawater, like a magical beacon, it alerted the cursed pirate crew of The Black Pearl to its existence. The crew of undead pirates appear normal except when hit by moonlight…when their true skeletal appearance is shown.
As evening approaches, the skeletal pirates unfurl the tattered black sails of the Black Pearl and set sail to attack Port Royal. Before the English know what has happened, the pirates have run off with both the gold piece AND Elizabeth.
Will realizes, despite Norrington’s obstinate refusal to turn to Sparrow for help, that the crazy pirate may be his only chance of safely rescuing Elizabeth. In a happy coincidence, Will happens to have been the blacksmith who designed Sparrow’s cell, and quickly frees him.
After a few crafty ploys, they soon steal the HMS Interceptor and take off after Elizabeth, with Norrington fuming aboard the HMS Dauntless in slow pursuit.
***SPOILER WARNING: READ NO FURTHER LEST YE’VE SEEN THE FILM***
HERE THERE BE MONSTERS!
In short order, Will finds out that Sparrow knew his father, who was a pirate. More than this, it turns out that their fates are entwined. Sparrow, himself, used to be the pirate captain of the Black Pearl. Years before, his crew found a mysterious island where the cursed Aztec Treasure of Cortez was buried.
Sparrow’s crew, led by the villainous Barbarosa, committed mutiny right before they split the gold and Sparrow was the only one not touched by the curse, since he was left on an abandoned island without a share of the bounty. Will’s father objected to the mutiny. The crew tied him to a cannon and sank him beneath the ocean.
* It was never mentioned, but if Will’s father was cursed, I suspect he was just hanging out at the bottom of the ocean, conscious for at least 10 years. I thought it might have been a nice moment to show his father finally achieving rest at the end of the film. Or to have him come out of the depths to save his son at some point. Oh well…
In any case, Sparrow knows that not only do the pirates need to return all the gold pieces back to the original treasure chest to remove the curse, but that a drop of blood from each pirate who was cursed must be dropped in the chest as well. Because Will’s father is at the bottom of the ocean, Will’s own blood is the necessary ingredient (not just the coin that Elizabeth has) to rid the pirates of their curse and restore them to their human selves.
It is unclear at the beginning whether Sparrow will trade Will for his ship or if he has a grander scheme in mind. However, you should go see the film and find out!