"The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do." - Captain Jack Sparrow
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writer: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert
Principal cast members:
In my rules for how the universe works, one of the big ones is that you just can't make a good movie based on a video game or a theme park ride. But then there's another rule well-known to aeronautical engineers which states that if you provide enough thrust, you can make a brick fly. So in movie terms, if you have an idea as shallow as one of the featured attractions from Disneyland, all you really need is to throw enough money and special effects at it and you can turn it into a profitable film.
Before 2003, most of the films with the Walt Disney Pictures label tended to rely on animated actors instead of living ones and were marketed squarely at the pre-teen set. That studio brand had never appeared on a film that wasn't rated G or PG. Pirates of the Caribbean sported a decidedly more adult story but with its heritage firmly rooted inside Disneyland, it made perfect sense for the film to carry the Walt Disney Films label as opposed to the more adult Touchstone brand.
Hopefully, parents were properly warned. Any parent who assumed a Walt Disney film would be suitable for toddlers was in for a rude awakening with the violence, hints of supernatural horror, and subtle sexuality that permeated Pirates. From a filmmaking standpoint, it is fortunate that Verbisnki and the screenwriters realized the actual Disney ride made an excellent setting but offered very little in terms of plot. After all, the Pirates ride has a number of animated scenes that suggest a story that can play out in a matter of minutes. For a feature film, you have to hang a lot more story on that framework.
What resulted from this blend of elements is a fine action film. The plot is solid enough to engage a viewer early on. There is a love story, elements of fate at work, and character-driven conflict that's established in the earliest scenes. From there, once the Black Pearl attacks Port Royal, there is non-stop action from then to the end of the film. Like any good theme park ride, there are lots of noise and excitement and plenty of unexpected turns and twists along the way. While the action itself offers some fun surprises, so do the characters. We find ourselves amazed by unexpected qualities from all of the principle roles.
The casting is quite good. Verbinski had the foresight to cast Johnny Depp in the key role and then give Depp the freedom to create a quirky, distinctive Jack Sparrrow. About the time you begin to think Jack might just be a drunk, wildly inappropriate for a "kid's movie", you realize he is much more perceptive and alert than his slurring swagger suggests. While Orlando Bloom is hardly a colorful performer, the earnest Will Turner who passes for a moral center in the film is an excellent role for him. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley portrays a truly unique heroine. She never accepts the role of damsel in distress and at times proves to be disturbingly more compatible with the pirate Jack than the good guy Turner.
Geoffrey Rush is given the license to ham it up as the pirate villain, Captain Barbossa. His accent, mannerisms, and behavior are in many ways true pirate movie clichés, but he carries it off with a polish and panache that transcends the stereotype. Jack Davenport is surprisingly effective in the very limited role of Commodore Norrington. He gets a little better character to work with than the cliché stodgy Redcoat role he first appears to be. Jonathon Pryce manages to turn in a solid performance in a standard character role, as well.
The cinematography and special effects in the film are excellent. It is definitely a pretty film to watch and there are a few truly eye-popping moments. Really good action films are a lot like theme park rides, anyway: you strap yourself in at the beginning and hang on until it comes to a stop. Pirates hits this mark perfectly and while the love story isn't all that deep, the backstory behind the plot is intriguing enough to keep us working to figure it all out before the end arrives. Most of all, we find ourselves having a great deal of fun along with the principle characters, which is precisely why you pick up a film like this in the first place.
Coolness factor: 6
Overall entertainment: 7