(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars
In recent interviews, Johnny Depp explained that he creates his various onscreen personas by drawing from other characters. To play a sleuth from the 1800s, for example, he might combine the affable pastor with the lilting voice from Local Hero with that of a precocious French schoolgirl. To play Capt. Jack Sparrow, the down-on-his-luck pirate in Disney’s lavish Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl, it appears that Depp crafted his character by combining Dudley Moore’s slurring, self-assured turn as the wealthy drunk in Arthur with Tim Curry’s take on Dr. Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Sporting enough mascara to make Tammy Faye Bakker wince, Depp gives a performance as curious as it is entertaining. His florid antics keep things interesting even during the more turgid parts of the movie.
The rousing, tongue-in-cheek Pirates of the Caribbean is surprisingly entertaining, despite being produced by mega-hack Jerry Bruckheimer, despite being far too long at two hours plus and despite the fact that it is based on a theme park ride.
This is the second Disney film based on one of their theme park attractions. The first was the live action musical comedy The Country Bears, which was soundly rejected by virtually everyone except my son (“I love teddy bears and country music, Dad, and it’s got both of them!”). Due this Thanksgiving is The Haunted Mansion, an Eddie Murphy family comedy.
While the idea of basing movies on theme park attractions may seem absurd on the surface, it should be noted that Disney theme park attractions are created with storylines. On our last vacation at Disney World, I learned that even the nightly light show in Epcot has an elaborate storyline.
The upside of basing a movie on a ride, of course, is that each title has a massive built-in worldwide family audience. The downside will come in the future, when young fans of the movies visit the parks and compare the attractions with those of competing theme parks. (“Mom, the Terminator ride at Universal has moving seats, special effects, live actors and a cool 3-D movie. Why does Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride just have a bunch of old puppets?”)
As for the actual movie, it is stuffed with all things pirate: lusty wenches, menacing rogues, a beautiful maiden, piles of treasure, battles at sea and a horrible curse. The screenplay touches on major scenes from the ride while going its own direction.
The film opens with the comical arrival of Capt. Jack Sparrow at the Port Royal harbor. Seems that the wicked Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) led a mutiny and took Jack’s ship, The Black Pearl, away from him, leaving the deposed pirate stranded on a tiny isle (the tale of his escape is funny and well-delivered). Jack rescues Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), daughter of the governor (Jonathan Pryce), but still ends up thrown in jail.
Shortly after, the pirates of The Black Pearl attack the town, snatching Elizabeth and mocking their ex-captain as they leave him in the pokey. While the governor and Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), Elizabeth’s would-be fiance, fret over what to do, Jack strikes a deal with blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who loves Elizabeth but believes he is beneath her station, and the pair take off on a rescue mission.
What they don’t know is that the pirates of The Black Pearl are cursed. Until all the coins from a stolen treasure are returned and a blood offer given, the pirates must sail the seas as the undead. While they look like hale and hearty thieves, moonlight reveals that they are actually walking, talking skeletons.
Director Gore Verbinski does his best to keep things lively and succeeds more often than not. Still, the impressively staged fights grow tiresome after a while (the curse keeps the pirates from dying and movie conventions keep the heroes from dying, so where’s the all-important sense of danger?) and the two-hour-plus run time is daunting.
The cast delivers consistently, playing their stereotypes enthusiastically. Geoffrey Rush is a standout as the wicked captain, chewing scenery with gusto, and, from beginning to end, Depp is simply mesmerizing to watch. Klaus Badelt contributes an appropriately melodramatic score.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl is too long, too familiar and, at times, too repetitive. But Depp, Rush, a strong cast and a string of fine set pieces make up for the deficit areas. Incidentally, those viewers patient enough to sit through the looooooong closing credits will be rewarded by a last visit with a nasty little pirate monkey.