Movie review by Greg Carlson
Since its debut all the way back on March 18, 1967, Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” dark ride has delighted literally millions of children and adults alike. With its gorgeous dioramas and elaborate special effects, “Pirates” is arguably the signature attraction of the theme park. Some may claim that its (then-groundbreaking) audio-animatronic figures haven’t dated terribly well, but visit Anaheim any given summer day, and take a look at the smiling faces of the folks stepping off the ride – dead men may tell no tales, but “Pirates of the Caribbean” is an American classic.
While the idea of making a movie based on a theme park ride is certainly novel, the Gore Verbinski-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” struggles to live up to the entertainment that inspired it. The movie version is noisy, sprawling, and cannot make up its mind how many climaxes it needs. At more than two hours long, it quite simply cannot do what Disneyland accomplishes in a matter of minutes. That said, “Pirates” still manages many delights, not the least of which is a fabulous performance from Johnny Depp.
Playing Captain Jack Sparrow as a flouncing, out-of-his-mind oddball decked out with colorful beads in his half-dreadlocks and mascara dripping from his eyes, Depp clearly relishes his role. The actor might have described his approach to Sparrow as a cross between Keith Richards and Pepe LePew, but the heady stew he conjures up is something altogether original in the annals of cinematic pirates. Captain Jack operates with a roguish insouciance that always keeps you guessing as to where his true allegiance lies. He’s a natural born scoundrel and liar, and he has so much fun, you cheer him on even when it appears he is up to no good.
The other actors can barely keep up with Depp, but they all serve their purposes nicely. Knockout Keira Knightley (herself something like a cross between Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder) is at the center of the plot as the imperiled Elizabeth Swann, a governor’s daughter destined from childhood to be mixed up with buccaneers. Elizabeth’s love interest, a self-conscious blacksmith with his own ties to piracy, is played by Orlando Bloom. Rounding out the group is scenery-glutton Geoffrey Rush as the evil Captain Barbossa, the cursed mutineer who kidnaps Elizabeth because he believes her to be the key that will untangle him from his fate.
Unfortunately, far too much time is spent away from the main characters, dwelling instead on the less-interesting scalawags in the supporting cast. While it certainly is cool to see the special effects wizardry that turns the Black Pearl crew into undead skeletons (it happens whenever the moonlight shines upon them), the filmmakers should have paid more attention to Elizabeth. Overall, though, “Pirates of the Caribbean” seems likely to break another major curse by becoming the first successful pirate movie in a very long time. Virtually every effort released in the last couple of decades has been a complete failure (i.e. “The Pirate Movie” and “Cutthroat Island”), but this Disney version might earn itself a rousing chorus of “Yo Ho! Yo Ho! A pirate’s life for me!”
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/14/03.