Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Walt Disney Pictures, 2003)

Norrington: "You are without a doubt the worst pirate I've ever heard of.
Jack Sparrow: "But you have heard of me."

Yo ho, yo ho, the pirate's life for me. From Errol Flynn sailing the high seas to Cary Elwes saving Buttercup in The Princess Bride, pirates have been about action, adventure and romance. Unfortunately, with movies like Cutthroat Island, the genre seemed to die a painful and lasting death. Then Walt Disney Pictures decided to take a chance on resuscitating the genre with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Creating a movie based on a theme park ride doesn't exactly scream Oscar, but it's not that kind of film. Pirate movies are about thrills and spectacle, and this big budget flick certainly delivers the goods.

Jack Sparrow (that's Captain Jack Sparrow), a pirate who is in-between ships at the moment, stumbles into Port Royal, Jamaica, looking for a new ship. His former ship, the Black Pearl, had been taken away from him in an act of mutiny, with the crew leaving him stranded on a desert island. Once in port, he meets and saves the life of Elizabeth Swann, the governor's daughter, and for his trouble is jailed for being a pirate. But Jack has no time to worry about hanging, because the Black Pearl has come to Port Royal, searching for Elizabeth. The crew believe that her blood will free them of a curse they have been put under for stealing cursed gold coins from a dead pirate's stockpile. It's up to Jack, along with Will Turner, a young blacksmith's apprentice who has loved Elizabeth all his life, to save the day. And that's just the first half of the film.

Tides turn, then turn again, secrets are exposed, and characters find themselves walking the plank before this battle royal is over. Will blood be spilled? Will Jack get his ship back? Can love save the day? And what about that enormous pile of treasure? Ah, my pretties, that would be telling.

Pirates is a long film, clocking in at 143 minutes. It could have used some judicious editing; the fight scenes drag on a bit too long, losing their appeal as the minutes tick by. Eliminating some of the fight choreography would have given the film a bit more life without losing any of its energy. And those scenes do have energy; as Will Turner, Orlando Bloom (Troy, Black Hawk Down) plays his scenes with obvious enjoyment. It's clear that he learned a thing or two about swordplay during his work on Lord of the Rings, and during his sparring round with Johnny Depp, he has a smile on his face that lets you know he's really having a good time. That enthusiasm captivated me, and helped me make it through as the scene slowly wore on.

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I also think that there could have been a bit more exposition. The character of Jack Sparrow is a bit of a cipher; we know nothing about him other than the fact that he is a famous pirate who wants his ship back. That isn't to say that Johnny Depp doesn't perform, in fact his performance is the number one reason I urge people I know to see this film. Jack Sparrow believes he's a star, and acts like one. Putting on the air of a hyper-medicated rock star, Johnny struts and staggers about like the bastard love child of Keith Richards and George Clinton, stealing every scene he's in. The way he delivers his lines is amazing; no one else could have breathed real life into this character like he does. And I'm not just saying that because he's dead sexy in eyeliner.

In fact, Johnny Depp breathes life into every character that he inhabits, from angora-wearing director Ed Wood to Edward Scissorhands. There is always a certain humanity, something that makes you understand the character, and this film is no different. Jack Sparrow may not have very much motivating him, but his determination is strong, and his heart is in the right place. Johnny takes a poorly developed character and shapes him into someone worth getting to know.

Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Frida) plays Barbossa, the new captain of the Black Pearl, and he gives a top-notch performance. Unfortunately, he is cast as a stock Disney villain, and doesn't have as much room for character development. Barbossa is bad, period. End of discussion. It's hard for an actor to work around definitives, but Geoffrey takes what he has been given and under the bombast crafts a quietly desperate villain, where others may have been tempted to go overboard. As it were.

Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham, Love,Actually) plays Elizabeth, straddling the line between proper English girl and strong willed woman. As with Barbossa, Elizabeth feels like a stock Disney heroine, with all the requisite pluck and wit; put her into Beauty and the Beast, and she'd fit right in. And the crew of the Black Pearl all look like Lost Boys who have gone to seed.

Industrial Light and Magic provides the visual effects, and Greg Cannon leads the special makeup effects. They give us the walking skeletons and other spooky delights that give just enough shivers. The movie sticks to its path of action and adventure, but the horrific elements provide just enough spice to keep you interested, keeping it from turning into just another battle-scene-after-battle-scene movie. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski keeps everything crisp, even during evening scenes. Too often in films everything is a wash of blue, owing to the fact that many cinematographers film night scenes during the day, using a filter for what they call "day for night" shots. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that these scenes will be just as clear in the DVD version.

This is a popcorn and candy movie if ever there was one. If you've been to Disneyland, you can even play "spot the similarities," since there are plenty of shots that are patterned after the theme park ride. The battle scenes are spectacular, the script is well-written, and the scenery is lovely. Although the twists and turns are relatively easy to spot beforehand, they are interesting enough to keep you engaged. It's a good thing, too; Pirates of the Caribbean 2 has already been announced. Hopefully it will be every bit the fun-filled ride that this movie turned out to be.

One more thing. Don't be too eager to grab your things and head out of the theater when the credits roll. Even though the final cut at the end of the movie is one of the snappiest cuts I've seen in a long time, don't go anywhere. There's a final scene at the end of the credits for folks who stick around. "Welcome to the Caribbean, luv!"


[Denise Dutton]

If you want to talk like a pirate, the IMDb quotes section lists just about every line in this film.
Be forewarned, however; reading all the quotes before you see the movie could spoil some of the fun. Yo ho!