Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

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*. In 1978 the British film critic Leslie Halliwell wrote an essay titled “The Decline and Fall of the Movies” that ended by describing recent Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws and The Exorcist as “rides on fairground ghost trains: one pays for the thrill, but one comes out more depressed than uplifted.”
*. It’s a line that stuck in my head, and for a while I couldn’t help noticing how every big new release at the time (I first read the essay in the early ’90s) had as its ad line something about how it was “the thrill ride of the year,” or a warning to “strap yourself in tight for the ride of the summer!”
*. Well, as you probably know, Pirates of the Caribbean is a movie that was inspired by (credited as “based on”) a popular theme ride at Disneyland, which may make it the first film to have such an origin. I don’t start off mentioning this to mock it, but only to suggest both how obvious and how improbable its success was. Even director Gore Verbinski was sceptical at first of what he thought was going to be “a two-hour advertisement for a theme park.”
*. I think the script really came through. I say that because even at nearly two and a half hours it’s a movie that doesn’t feel at all bloated and only drags a bit through one episode. The way the story is structured, down to details like the mirroring of the two minor but essential pairs of underlings (the pirates Pintell and Ragetti and redcoats Murtogg and Mullroy), is perfect. The plot is intricate without being confusing, and had me wondering several times what was going to happen next. All of the pirate film essentials are included but none of it seems stale. Even the zombie angle works, and by 2003 zombies were already nearing total media saturation (in my notes on Zombieland I identified circa. 2007 as “peak zombie,” so we’re not far off here). The zombies are also symbolic, as what we are witnessing is a “completely dead genre” (Verbinski) being resurrected.
*. Does it matter that the dialogue is forgettable? I honestly can’t remember a single line, and I feel like there should have been plenty given the colourful cast. But on the screenwriters’ commentary it’s mentioned that less interest was taken in what the characters were actually saying than the rhythm of the lines. On the commentary even Elizabeth’s “You like pain? Try wearing a corset” is dismissed as a “cheesy hero line” that Verbinski insisted on. It plays forced and isn’t funny. It’s like flashing an “applause” sign at the audience.
*. As an aside, and a final note on the script, there are three commentaries included in the DVD release and the one with the three screenwriters is by far and away the one most worth listening to. I’ve found this is usually the case. Screenwriters are the best when it comes to commentaries, followed by film critics/historians, directors, producers and cast.
*. For some reason there was confusion and controversy over the subtitle. It was thought to be misleading because the ship itself wasn’t supposed to be cursed. I can’t see what the fuss was about. The crew of the Black Pearl is cursed so it comes to pretty much the same thing.
*. I mentioned there being only one episode in the film that I thought dragged. The part I didn’t like was when Captain Jack and Elizabeth are left stranded on the desert island. This felt like a point where the movie simply had to catch its breath, and it was pretty clear how it was all going to be resolved in order to stitch the plot together. On their commentary track Verbinski and Depp talk about the concerns that it killed the film’s momentum.
*. But the other reason I didn’t care for it was because of the complete lack of any chemistry between Depp and Knightley. Shouldn’t we have at least felt there was a chance of something happening between them, alone on an island?
*. The thing is, there can’t be any spark between them because (a) Elizabeth already has two suitors and any more would just complicate things too much; and (b) Depp is playing Captain Jack as a sexually ambiguous character.
*. Disney executives were outraged at Depp’s performance, supposing that they had cast the “sexiest man alive” for a reason and that reason was not to do a camp impersonation of Keith Richards.
*. Depp retorted that they should have know what they were getting when they hired him. I’m not sure what he meant by this. In my notes on Donnie Brasco I observed how Depp embodies a curiously asexual male beauty which killed his on-screen romance with Anne Heche in that movie. He still has it here, and it means you know that he’s a totally harmless fellow to be stuck on a desert island with, even if you are a beautiful waif.
*. Keira Knightley was seventeen years old and looks like she might weigh seventy pounds all wet. I know she gets a lot of grief for it but I do find it distracting. Even her face seems hollowed out and skeletal. This exaggerates her eyes even  more, and throughout most of the movie Depp seems in a battle with her to see who has the biggest, brownest Bambi peepers. Depp cheats because he uses more eyeliner and is wearing dark contacts.

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*. Personally, I think Geoffrey Rush gives the best performance, and his camp weariness is even more watchable than Depp’s when they’re playing face to face. The supporting cast of character actors is solid throughout, with Jack Davenport and Kevin McNally both excellent in roles that have real importance.
*. At the time it set a new standard for violence in a Disney movie and was the first film from that studio to receive a PG-13 rating. Obviously the violence didn’t bother anyone. Standards had been drifting downward for years, and the violence here is mostly dealt with in a comic vein. In the scene where the pirates invade the governor’s mansion, for example, we see the man at the door blown away by a pistol at point blank range and then a little later one of the pirates being blasted by a cannonball. But both victims are knocked down like bowling pins and we don’t care.
*. The production is first rate, showing off the full resources of a major studio put to the service of a producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) who always believes in going as big as possible. You can’t make a (good) pirate movie on the cheap. The pirate cave alone took five months to build with over a hundred tradespeople working on it. That’s a staggering investment, and it was by no means the biggest expense.
*. The effects are also very good. I’ve said many times how much I dislike CGI, especially for the way it flattens everything into a cartoon reality, but it’s used well here and suits the film’s spirit. In particular the swordfight between Barbossa and Captain Jack with the two of them passing in and out of the moonlight is a magical bit of animation in the great Disney tradition.
*. It was a huge project and one where everything came together. I think it’s a great movie for children, and if you object to that being a snobby or elitist opinion (I prefer “adult”), you’re welcome. I don’t find it repays reviewing. Given its excess they didn’t really have anywhere else to go, but given its success there had to be more. In Hollywood you’re never allowed to quit when you’re ahead.

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