I’ve always been amazed by how willing the Walt Disney company is to recycle itself for profit. First, they started remaking their own movies (That Darn Cat, Flubber, 101 Dalmatians). Then they produced sub-par straight-to-video sequels to their classic films such as The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast. Some of these – such as Return to Neverland and The Jungle Book 2 - even made it to theaters. The latest Disney money-making scheme is to produce live-action versions of their popular theme park rides. Last year, we got the underrated The Country Bears, and this Thanksgiving will bring Eddie Murphy in The Haunted Mansion. For now, the studio has released Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. I’m kind of dreading the day when I have to review It’s a Small World: The Movie.
Set in a small town known as Port Royal, the film stars Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) as Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the Governor (Jonathan Pryce). Years before, she stole a pirate medallion from her childhood friend Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in order to protect him from the town’s adults, who were ready to kill any pirates they came across no matter how old. Will never knew that she took it. As adults, they share an unspoken love for one another, but Elizabeth is being actively pursued by Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport). She’d run off with Will in a second if he’d ever summon up the courage to acknowledge his feelings for her.
Trouble starts when Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) wanders into town. He is a notorious pirate who has come to “commandeer” a new ship. His previous ship – the Black Pearl – was taken from him during a mutiny lead by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). A subsequent curse has turned Barbossa and crew into walking undead whose true skeletal form is shown only when exposed to moonlight (when not in moonlight they appear normal). In order to break the curse, Barbossa needs to collect the pirates’ treasure – all 882 pieces of it which have been plundered. He has all but one piece: the medallion Elizabeth has. Barbossa kidnaps her, so Will asks Sparrow to help him rescue her.
Movies about pirates have always been a dicey proposition. Few – if any – of them have been very good. If you doubt me, consider Roman Polanski’s Pirates with Walter Matthau, or the 1980’s Robert Urich disaster The Ice Pirates, or even Disney’s recent animated feature Treasure Planet. I guess it would be fair for me to say that Pirates of the Caribbean is the best pirate movie I’ve ever seen, although I’m not sure how ringing that endorsement is.
You see, this is one of those movies that it’s hard to write a review of. Great movies or bad movies are easy; they inspire so much passion (of one form or another) in me that the words come spewing out. It’s the movies in the middle that are tough – the ones that leave me ambivalent. I know Pirates of the Caribbean is probably going to be a whopping hit, and on some levels I understand that. On other levels, I also know I’ll probably be in the minority who feel that something was missing here.
After giving it some careful consideration, I have realized that the movie just wasn’t fun enough for me. I initially thought it had something to do with the paper-thin characters, who all fit stereotypical molds like the Plucky Heroine and the Unexpected Hero. Or with the lack of a really compelling villain who would make me want to hiss at the screen. Or with the bizarre performance by Johnny Depp; I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was imitating Dudley Moore in Arthur. Or with my sense that the film doesn’t do enough with the undead pirates to make them seem truly spooky. Or that it’s at least 30 minutes too long.
Those explanations all seemed plausible, especially in light of the fact that I really enjoyed the look of the film. The sets are beautifully done, the special effects are impressive, and the action scenes are lively (if not terribly inventive). I also liked the performance of Keira Knightley, who somehow stands out in the middle of all the mayhem. This role doesn’t really call for a lot of heavy acting, but she certainly has a presence onscreen. The same goes for Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings). His character is a stereotype through-and-through, but the actor brings so much presence to the part that he’s hard not to like.
So as you can see, there are some good things here. Even so, I still walked out feeling unsatisfied, which brings me back to my point. It’s not so much the minor flaws as it is the fact that Pirates of the Caribbean just wasn’t enough fun for me. I would have happily overlooked those aforementioned flaws had the picture swept me away a little more. It has some good elements, but it doesn’t have them in big enough doses. The movie needed to reach a little higher, be a little more inventive. Director Gore Verbinski seems to enjoy orchestrating all these high-seas adventures, yet he never invests the film with the sort of visual or tonal bravado that he brought to his last picture, The Ring. That’s what this movie needed for me: something to set it apart from the pack. I felt like I had seen everything in this movie done before, which made it all seem like a retread instead of a summer event.
Again, this is only my opinion, and I suspect that many people will enjoy the film more than I did. If that turns out to be the case, I can honestly say that I’m envious of those people. I really wanted to like Pirates of the Caribbean a whole lot more than I did.
( 1/2 out of four)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is rated PG-13 for action/adventure violence. The running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.
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