You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters!
Hollywood is out of ideas.
It’s a mantra you hear from the Internet’s movie wags, especially if you visit Fark.com on a regular basis. It’s a conclusion that’s easy to reach, considering the dearth of multiplex fodder that’s not based on previously consumed media, like books, comics, TV shows, real events, video games, breakfast cereals, other movies…the list goes on. Disney is one of the most egregious offenders, cannibalizing its rich history and regurgitating it as mass merchandised product for a new generation of power consumers. 2003 saw a new low for the House of Mouse: mining its amusement park rides for fun and profit — mostly profit. You have to admit, when you heard there was going to be a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, you shook your head and muttered…Hollywood is out of ideas.
If only all out-of-ideas movies were this good.
Pirates of the Caribbean may not be original, but it sure is fun. It bears little in common with its animatronic forebears, other than a few winks and nods. I’d dare say that it bears little in common with the classic pirate movies, like Captain Blood, The Crimson Pirate, The Sea Hawk, or Cutthroat Island. (Wait, scratch that last one. Not really a classic.) It has the devil-may-care attitude and the derring-do, but it is more sophisticated in its accuracy to maintaining its period setting, and it has the benefit of modern special effects to elevate its Ray Harryhausenesque cursed pirates to truly believable heights. That’s not to mention the bravura performances of its leads — Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley — all having more fun than a paycheck should allow.
Sometimes, maybe being out of ideas is a good thing.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is not the most feared pirate in the Caribbean, but some people at least have heard of him, which is enough to make him pleased. He happens to sail into Port Royal, and be captured by British troops, shortly before the most feared pirates in the Caribbean really do show up — Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and the cursed crew of Black Pearl. They make off with Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the governor’s daughter. She’s is possession of a mystical medallion, which she stole from Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) several years before. See, the medallion belonged to Will’s dad, a pirate who was part of the Black Pearl’s cursed crew. The pirates need the medallion — and the blood of the offspring of the man originally cursed by it — to lift the unholy treasure’s curse. Will wants nothing to do with piracy, but finds that it is his destiny — especially if he wants to rescue and woo the damsel in distress.
I didn’t see many movies in the summer of 2003, but the rave recommendations of family, friends, and co-workers prompted me to give Pirates of the Caribbean a try. I walked into the theater with low expectations, the refrain “Hollywood is out of ideas” groping about in my head in search of some justification for its existence. The barrage of ads for soft drinks and cheap perfumes, trailers for movies I know I would loathe, and faux public service announcements decrying the evils of Internet piracy (oh, the irony!) almost made me forget what I was there to see — never a good sign. The opening flashback left me a little limp, as did the introductions to the growed-up Will and Elizabeth. Then the most marvelous sight graced the screen…Johnny Depp, as a pirate, riding in the crow’s nest of his ship.
But wait, ’twas but a visual gag! He’s really in a dinghy, its mast little taller than its sole occupant! And he’s taking on water! The coup de grâce is Depp riding again in the crow’s nest, this time because the boat has now lost the fight against the incoming water. As Captain Jack stepped off the crow’s nest onto the dock, his boat now completely below water, I was hooked. This movie promised to be fun, and from that moment on, it kept its promise.
Fourteen years ago, I was but a teenager. I had a paper route and had saved about $1200, a princely sum for a 14-year-old. I used it to buy an Amiga computer, which sported the same processor as a Sega Genesis game console, 1MB of RAM, no hard drive, and a couple floppy drives. Along with it I ordered a game a friend had raved about, a cool little adventure called The Secret of Monkey Island. It was about a dweeby kid who wanted to be a pirate. He learns to duel, not through skill with a sword but through skill at trading barbs and insults. He digs for buried treasure. He solves problems with bizarre items like a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle and gopher repellent. But, most importantly, he battles spectral ghosts to rescue the damsel in distress and find the Secret of Monkey Island. Which he never uncovers.
I know I’ve seen some of those classic pirate movies I listed above (though, strangely enough for a closet Renny Harlin fan, I’ve never seen Cutthroat Island), but watching Pirates of the Caribbean, it was The Secret of Monkey Island that stuck in my mind. It’s like the writers and I shared a meme, because the stories share so much. The compass that doesn’t point north. The utterly brilliant duel between Captain Jack Sparrow and Will in the blacksmith shop that’s fought more with words (“You’re not a eunuch, are you?”) than with swords, though the swordplay, choreographed by the incomparable Bob Anderson, who choreographed a similar fight in The Princess Bride, is the most thrilling you’ll find for some time. The ghost pirates, though they have real names like Barbossa than ludicrous names like LeChuck. But the overriding likeness is the fun, almost absurdist sense of humor. It flavors everything in Pirates of the Caribbean, not so much as to make it a straight comedy, but enough to liven the mood and make it more than just a fantasy, more than just a swashbuckler, more than just a pirate movie, to make it…dare I say?…perfect entertainment.
Oh, and they both have monkeys.
But it’s not just the fun atmosphere that makes Pirates of the Caribbean the perfect confection that it is. Let’s start with the obvious: the special effects. I’m not one of those film snobs who pooh-poohs computer generated effects. I am constantly amazed by how they can bring to life on screen what would have been impossible only ten years ago. Sure, sometimes computer graphics assert themselves in altogether unrealistic ways, but when have special effects not looked fake? I’d rather have cartoony CG than herky-jerky stop-motion any day. Pirates of the Caribbean‘s effects owe a huge debt to the master of herky-jerky stop-motion, Ray Harryhausen, as does any movie that apes his walking, fighting skeletons. Except that these skeletons look utterly real, the walking undead with agents and SAG cards. The pirates’ underwater march to attack the British ship unawares in the third act is one of the most brilliant uses of special effects ever. Few movies produce this level of realism with something so fantastic, and my hat is off to Industrial Light and Magic and all the other effects companies that contributed to this benchmark-setting movie.
Speaking of realism, you don’t get much better than a film crew scouring antique shops along the eastern United States to find the perfect authentic period weapon for the main character. Yes, Captain Jack Sparrow’s gun, pivotal to the story, was a genuine 18th century weapon. I’m sure classic film buffs who are buffier than me will rebut, but I don’t recall the classic pirate movies paying this much attention to portraying the period as closely as possible, rather than showing a stylized, idealized, Hollywoodized version thereof. Pirates of the Caribbean looks like it was filmed in a time-warped world that lived and breathed only yesterday, not like a modern production with replica costumes, sets, and ships. Idealized period films can work and be entertaining (I’m thinking of, say, The Adventures of Robin Hood), but it adds in subtle but measurable ways for the world to look real, and it’s part of what elevates Pirates of the Caribbean above its predecessors.
And what about those actors? I could write pages about how brilliant Johnny Depp is. He’s the last person you would suspect of starring in a pirate movie, bankrolled by Disney, based on one of their theme park rides, directed by someone (Gore Verbinski) whose previous movies would point to him being a journeyman hack, produced by one of the most crassly commercial producers alive (Jerry Bruckheimer). And yet here he is. Depp has always fascinated me with his sheer acting ability, the talent to build a character, casting aside his star status, and disappearing completely into another person. And such different characters too — can you possibly compare Edward Scissorhands to Donnie Brasco, Ichabod Crane to George Jung? With Captain Jack Sparrow (and really, you absolutely cannot call him anything else), he builds the most bizarre pirate you’ll ever see, an insane, fey, perpetually drunk, swaggering blowhard — yet it’s all a façade for a brilliant tactician. It’s not his best work by far (that would be a toss-up between any of the other four roles I listed), but it’s pretty incredible. Geoffrey Rush, admittedly, I have not seen much of, and what I have has been the same sort of less serious, goofier roles like Captain Barbossa. It’s not unlike his performance as the Marquis de Sade in Quills, except without the full frontal nudity. If I can make a generalization, there’s two sorts of villains: sympathetic ones (like Ed Harris’ General Hummel in The Rock) and unsympathetic ones (like Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back). Barbossa is sympathetic, to a degree; we feel the pathos of the curse, that being dead and unable to enjoy your immortality really, really sucks. He’s still delightfully evil, though, the sort of evil leader willing to shoot his own henchman. And besides, he has a monkey. All good evil overlords have a pet monkey. Orlando Bloom is the straight man, naïve, learning about the ways of the world as the story progresses — it’s his bildungsroman, of sorts, going from bumbling blacksmith’s apprentice to swashbuckler in the course of his adventures. Bloom brings a different energy than he did to his other famous role of Legolas the elf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He dials down the mystique and charisma, though his boyish good looks will still likely make the girls swoon. I missed Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham (though it’s on my must-rent list), so I wasn’t familiar with her previous work. She’s a fetching lass, but there’s more to her than that; perhaps it’s the bodice, but I think it’s the appeal of the verve and resourcefulness she brings to Elizabeth than makes her so appealing. And the British accent — I’m a sucker for British accents.
You would think that I would also be gushing about the meat and potatoes of the filmmaking — the direction and the screenwriting. I wish I could. I have no love for director Gore Verbinski, though judging him on a cheesy screwball comedy (Mouse Hunt) and a romantic comedy that sunk under the weight of excessive star power (The Mexican) may be unfair. Pirates of the Caribbean‘s visual panache comes from its effects, not from Verbinski’s artistic eye, though the writers credit him with some of the physical gags, which do add to the movie. I’ll keep an eye on his future efforts, but for now, I attribute the movie’s success to the cast and crew, not the captain. I did not initially give credit to the writers either, but after listening to their commentary (more on that later), I realized the layers and nuances they brought to the story that allowed everything to be build upon it. It lacks that spark that separates good screenplays from great, but it’s good enough to be a foundation for this grand adventure.
So, how about the DVD?
Pirates of the Caribbean is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and refreshingly for a major studio film, that’s the only format in which it is available. The transfer is acceptable, but a far cry from the quality discerning DVD fans demand of 2003 films and DVDs. Color reproduction is accurate, and the dark nighttime scenes (which amount to quite a bit of the movie) do not lose detail. It has a passable average bitrate of 6.75 Mbps. However, it suffers from excessive edge enhancement and digital noise reduction, resulting in a noisy picture at times, particularly in bright daytime scenes. The flaws are annoying and noticeable, but depending on your tolerance threshold may not be distracting. I found them distracting, but not so much that they ruin the experience.
It’s funny. I watched Pirates of the Caribbean at least six times without bothering to check the audio options, always watching it in its default Dolby Digital 5.1. While writing I checked the keep case for its language options, only to find to my deep surprise and enjoyment that there’s also a DTS 5.1 track. I was all prepared to rave about the Dolby Digital track, about its strong use of the surrounds, excellent spatiality, and impressive dynamic range. The DTS is even better, with all that plus the subtlety and richer timbre that marks the higher bitrate audio format. While the audio overall is not as showy as some action or science fiction surround tracks, it’s still impressive and its transition to DVD fares better than the video.
Disney has released Pirates of the Caribbean as a two-disc set. Disc One contains three commentary options, DVD-ROM material, and the forced trailers everyone loves so much (at least you can skip them with a simple click of your Menu button). There are two full-length commentaries, one by director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp, another by writers Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolport. Verbinski and Depp are rather sedate and dry, but have interesting material to share. The writers’ track is lively and interesting. It’s the sort of track that makes you really appreciate the DVD medium and what you can learn about the filmmaking craft. They discuss in detail the writing process and why they made certain choices. You don’t necessarily think about all that goes into writing a film as seemingly simple as Pirates of the Caribbean, and to hear its writers share that process — well, it makes you value their work all the more. The other commentary option is actually two truncated commentaries on certain scenes, one by actors Keira Knightley and Jack Davenport, one by producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Be thankful these aren’t full commentaries — there’s little value. Stick with the writer track. The DVD-ROM material requires installation of InterActual’s software, which is known spyware. I refuse to install it on my system. The forced trailers are viewable from the main menu, and consist of: Lion King 1 1/2, Freaky Friday, Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, and Hidalgo, as well as ads for Disney attractions and the TV series Alias.
Disc Two contains most of the extras. The main menu presents you with a volley of options: An Epic at Sea, Fly on the Set, Diaries, Below Deck, Blooper Reel, Deleted Scenes, “Moonlight Serenade” Scene Progression, Image Gallery, and Pirates in the Parks.
An Epic at Sea: This 38-minute documentary details the production of the film. It is divided into several chapters coinciding with various steps of the production process, or you can choose a “play all” option. It consists mostly of interviews with the cast and crew, with less behind-the-scenes footage than I would’ve liked — but after reviewing the Alien3 disc out of the Alien Quadrilogy set, how could I be happy with anything less than three hours of documentary material? I’m spoiled. The making of the effects was the part I found most interesting, particularly the miniature work for the ships and the conceptual art for the pirates.
Fly on the Set: Here you get 21 minutes of on-set footage. (Oooh, so this is where they put it!) You get title cards with the production date, and it is broken up into various locations or sequences of the film. I like this vérité approach to showing the making of a film, without voice-overs or talking heads.
Diaries: Divided into three sections, this gives you personal views of the production. “Producer’s Photo Diary” allows you to see five minutes of Jerry Bruckheimer’s on-set photos along with him talking to interviewers. “Diary of a Pirate” puts a camcorder in the hands of Lee Arenberg, one of the (you guessed it) pirates, Pintel (“Damn to the depths the mutton head that thought o’ parley!”). It’s ten minutes of shaky footage with voice-overs. It’s cool stuff. “Diary of a Ship” is 11 minutes following the Lady Washington, the brig that “played” the Interceptor. It’s a replica of a ship that sailed in the Caribbean in the 18th century.
Below Deck: Here you get the historical perspective on pirates — their way of life, their codes of conduct, and real pirates. There is an interactive mode, or you can opt to watch the material chapter by chapter.
Blooper Reel: Three minutes of goofs, gaffes, and flubs. At least you get to hear Johnny Depp, sort of in character, say “god, I hate this bloody line,” and Orlando Bloom, literally the day after signing to be in the film, throwing a sword about.
Deleted Scenes: For a movie that’s already 143 minutes long, you wouldn’t think there would be that many deleted scenes, but here you go, 20 minutes of them. If I have one complaint about Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s that it’s a bit on the long side, and these scenes have been cut quite mercifully. While they’re interesting, they would have padded an already long film and would’ve taken Captain Jack (cue the cheesy Billy Joel song…) into dubious characterization territory.
“Moonlight Serenade” Scene Progression: Six minutes dedicated to the big reveal of the cursed pirates, from pre-visualizations, to on-set filming, to effects creation. Nice, but why not more of this stuff for other sequences, like the underwater march?
Image Gallery: What it says.
Pirates in the Parks: How cool! Here you get an 18-minute portion of a Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color broadcast from 1968 showcasing Disneyland, and the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction specifically. “Anything’s possible at Disneyland!”
There is also DVD-ROM content on Disc Two, but spyware writers deserve a short drop and a sudden stop.
Like I briefly mentioned, at 143 minutes Pirates of the Caribbean is a bit long. But, what to throw overboard? It all works, and works nicely. I just need Ritalin, I suppose.
Anyone who suggests that Hollywood is out of ideas is a scurvy dog. Originality is nice, but now and again you can make a movie out of recycled parts, and as long as it’s put together well, you can enjoy the result. Pirates of the Caribbean is a prime example. It’s the sort of film that gives you hope that not all blockbusters budgeted at $160 million have to be limp, soulless, and without replay value. Such a grand adventure has not been seen in a long, long time, and image issues aside, Pirates of the Caribbean is a must-own.