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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Gore Verbinski, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.6

 

 

Posted: July 13, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

So-so choreographed swordfights, an oddly fangless supernatural element and an ingratiating comic performance by Johnny Depp aside, the true surprise of Pirates of the Caribbean is the over-arching theme of transformation, of struggling to become something you're not. This is a standard-issue theme in escapist fantasies of the Disney variety, to be sure, but in this crowd-pleasing confection from chameleonic director Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Mexican), one gets the sense it isn't entirely intentional.

There's Depp, affecting a strangely effeminate Keith Richards swagger as Captain Jack Sparrow, a bumbling pirate whose only desire in life, it seems, is to regain his lost ship (the titular Black Pearl) after a mutiny engineered by the leering Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, chewing scenery as if he had a tapeworm).

Not only does Depp prove his comedic bona fides, he manages to ground his bizarre portrayal (more swishy than swashbuckling) with more than one-note caricature. There's also the comely Keira Knightley (Bend it Like Beckham), a beguiling mixture of Natalie Portman and Kate Winslet, striving to overcome her eye-candy role as Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the governor (an utterly wasted Jonathan Pryce) of a British port in the Caribbean; Knightley displays the typical pluck and feistiness so common to Disney heroines, and does it well enough to make one suspect she's got much more going for her. And there's Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings), doing his best to shed his teen idol status by resembling the love child of Luke Perry and Kid Rock as Will Turner, a blacksmith whose legacy makes him a perfect pawn in Sparrow's attempt to win back his beloved vessel.

Turner, in turn, wants to chase after Barbossa and his crew because they've kidnapped Elizabeth, on whom he's harbored a not-so-secret crush ever since her father's crew fished him out of the water following a pirate raid eight years earlier. Elizabeth, as it happens, has been kidnapped by Barbossa's men because of her possession of a strange medallion she knicked from Will on that fateful day, a medallion which leads Barbossa to (wrongly) believe that she holds the key to removing the curse laid upon himself and his men: They're undead, you see, and need both the medallion and the blood of a deceased former crewman to become human once again. (We're not in the business of giving away key plot points here, not even plots as by-the-numbers as this one, but you don't need a head for fractal mathematics to know that it's the medallion's former owner they really want.)

But we digress. For all of the faint glimpses of transformation the movie affords (including the recasting of bloodthirsty pirates as lovable, non-human bunglers of the Captain Hook variety), the most pronounced aspect of this theme lies in the film itself; it's a PG-13 Jerry Bruckheimer action flick, straining to achieve the producer's usual air of summer blockbuster oomph within the corset-tight confines of a charming trifle based on a Disney theme park ride. That it doesn't succeed is no fault either of Bruckheimer's, Verbinski's or the cast's. Rather, it's because all involved have set for themselves an impossible task. The whitewashed homogeneity of the Disney empire hobbles the film like the chains in which Depp's Sparrow gets clapped roughly every half-hour.

If Bruckheimer wanted to make a pirate film, he should have gone for it without the aid of the house that Mickey built, the specter of the Renny Harlin/Geena Davis disaster Cutthroat Island be damned. The obligation to tack on references to the ride, tone down the gore and polish the action to a family-friendly sheen weigh too heavily on everyone present, and as a result Pirates of the Caribbean can't help resembling a live-action cartoon, and not of the variety at which Bruckheimer succeeds (is anyone else looking forward to Bad Boys II in a guilty-pleasure kind of way?). Pirates is a fun thrill ride of its own, largely due to the game efforts of a cast obviously enjoying the experience. But the grand pirate-movie spectacle the principals involved could have made looms as heavily in the background as the terrifying sight of the skull-and-crossbones.

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