A little late on this, but in honor of Tomorrowland, here is another, more successful, Disney attempt to turn a theme park attraction into a live-action film, a success that has haunted their follow-up attempts to this day…
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a little bit of lightning in a bottle. It shouldn’t work; in fact, it didn’t just ten years later – when the principal actor and director teamed up again with a similar tone and dollar signs in their eyes, only to be trounced by generally divested cinema-goers and critics. It didn’t work the half-dozen or so times that Hollywood has tried to return pirates to the mainstream since the end of their heyday ransacking Hollywood way back in the misty yesteryear of the 1930s. And it didn’t work just the same year The Curse of the Black Pearl was released, when Disney took two other Disneyland/ Disneyworld rides and made films out of them, both to negligent box office results and dismal critical failure.
But when Disney, Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp, and hours of make-up and costuming a day collided in the summer 2003, a little slice of magic happened. In fact, even watching the film all these years later, it’s a little hard to materialize how the stars collided so that it might work so well, and it is ever-easier to witness how closely it comes to crashing and burning. Certainly, it doesn’t always make it easy on itself – there is more than a healthy amount of sag, and the wrinkles show when it folds in on itself in the endless running around of the middle hour. But, seemingly against its better interests, it works, and if you look at it the right way, it isn’t hard to see why.
So rare is it that a character or a singular element of a film overtakes it like a divining rod and channels all of the energy of the piece into one cataclysmic maelstrom of force, and so rare is it that this maelstrom is one Johnny Depp. In the ensuing years, Depp has taken to recreating his Bowie-at-the-circus routine time and time again (although, in this case, I suppose it is Keith Richards), and the returns have been diminished to say the least. What was once invitingly anarchic and blissfully chaotic has become gluttonously over-wrought and sterile. But as Captain Jack Sparrow, the savviest and silliest pirate to sail the seven seas, he concocted some sort of magic that feels downright heretical and unholy in the world of serious cinema, but so right for this project.
Specifically, it feels like a critique, thoughtful in its thoughtlessness, of serious cinema, like a barrel of carnivorous cartoon piranhas was opened in an otherwise ignorant and largely stoic adventure film, and the results are often cutting, magical pop-cinema at its finest. The film centers a relatively stable A-plot pirate film – with blasé type Will Turner (played by blasé type Orlando Bloom) and blasé type Elizabeth Swann (played by, you guessed it, blasé type Keira Knightley) falling into the evil plot of a cadre of devilish zombie-pirates (yes, zombie-pirates) who want to reclaim their souls by returning every last piece of a sunken treasure they had, years ago, stolen. A plot which is, if finely tuned and largely competent in its own right, unexceptional on its own.
Yet there comes Captain Jack Sparrow, drunkenly storming through the sobriety of the material and inebriating everyone and everything in his path. It isn’t quite pop-postmodernism, but he gamely reconstructs and recenters a production, bending it to his whim and tilting it on its axis so that it topples the whole “we’re making a pirate movie” aesthetic of the piece on its head. Every time the film seems ready to regain focus on its central narrative, Sparrow is there to take the plot and dance away with it, deftly reminding that, at the end of the day, all of this is just a bit daft, isn’t it?
It’s this sort of tomfoolery that returns Pirates to a time when big-budget adventure comedies where the order of the day and the much-touted feature of every new blockbuster wasn’t how grimly serious and archly-stone-faced the material would be. Pirates is, essentially, a young upstart that brashly rejects the mature sensibilities of modern cinema and actively flaunts its own agape senselessness at every turn. As much as the Sparrow character feels like a construct, Depp is always there investing, even infesting, the character with warmth and humanism that makes him the most living, breathing beast in the whole film. He feels like an animal, and he takes pop-cinema back to the stone age in the best possible way.
Not that Pirates is all Depp, mind you. Director Gore Verbinski certainly understands how to use him, boldly contrasting tones and almost constructing a study in cartoon logic clashing up against pseudo-seriousness. Together, the star and director feel like a modern day Errol Flynn (had he gotten grandstandingly, self-mockingly drunk on set) and Michael Curtiz, the pair who made the classic Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk back in pre-WWII Hollywood, back in a time when there was a greater interest in “going to the movies” as an avenue for bold escapism and uncontained imagination never having to reckon with seriousness or naturalism in any of their forms. Those films understood the matinee appeal of the idea of “the cinema” at its lightest and most daring. To match, Verbinski stages his film with the vertiginous, light-on-its-feet daftness of a great lost Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon (it was not for nothing that one of his previous films was Mousehunt, about as literal a live-action cartoon as you could hope to find).
With Depp in tow (not to mention Geoffrey Rush as antagonist Barbossa, having all sorts of fun as a ham-and-cheese Snidely Whiplash villain), Verbinski slathers the screen in reckless abandon and loopy, even defiant non-seriousness that forms the backbone of a piece that, even at its most ungainly and long-in-the-tooth, never feels over-worked or lost amidst its length. The film founded what has since become something of a tentpole franchise for those involved, but while the later sequels spent too much time lost at sea and found themselves drowning amidst their self-serious quest for grandiose narrative flourishes, this first Pirates is always aware that it needs to come up for air from time to time. Again, it has too much flab, but it wears it well, and in the days of blockbusters that drag on and on and discover increasingly barbaric, baroque ways to turn simple stories into three-hour lectures, the humility of a simple story is a great joy indeed.