We were supposed to go see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it was sold out (probably the only time that statement has ever been made). We weren’t intending on seeing that stupid movie based on a Disneyland theme park ride on opening night, but we were already there and what else were we going to do on a hot July night? It turns out, for many people, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was as close an experience as they would get to seeing Star Wars for the first time. This is only revealed in retrospect.
The film is centered around a triangle, not so much a “love triangle” and concerns the well-to-do Governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley playing, in a sense, the “princess” role), the young do-right with a past unknown even to himself in Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and the roguish, reckless scene-stealer who has confidence only in himself (and even that has a tendency to flag) and his prized vessel. Pair him with a hairy right-hand-man (with Kevin McNally’s Mr. Gibbs filling in for a wookiee) and the bloodline between Capt. Jack Sparrow and Han Solo isn’t as far-fetched as immediately thought. Pit them against the embodiment of death itself, be it a metal-plated black skull or a pirate revealed as a skeleton in the moonlight, with direct ties to the history and fate of the young hero (one a father and the other the primary cause of a father’s enslavement), set them off on missions of rescue, redemption, and revenge and you have two separate yet compellingly similar narratives.
And it worked, even better than Disney Productions and production partner Jerry Bruckheimer dreamed, and better than audiences imagined it would. A ludicrous proposition wound up forming a franchise.
At the core of this are three individuals that gave this hulking mass its wind to set sail, and one has to be the performance of Johnny Depp as Sparrow. Up to this point Depp was living down his role as the boyish undercover cop on 21 Jump Street with role after bizarro role, some working well (as with his work with Terry Gilliam in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas as “Dr. Gonzo,” and several of his stints with Tim Burton), and others not so well (more films with Tim Burton). Depp’s Sparrow is sunburnt in the brain, the end-result of too much rum and seabound isolation, coupled with hidden insecurity. He doesn’t say that out loud though. It comes through in his actions, that of a man who constantly has to live in the moment only because he may not be cognizant enough to remember his own history, and therefore goes on impulse with a combination of bravado and underpinning fear. His big-eyed reactions regularly betrayed the truth that he had no idea in hell if this next trick was going to work, or if he was going down to Davy Jones Locker with an anchor to his ankles. When fate was kind, his amazement equals that of the audiences’ who, by now, have had their disbelief suitably suspended.
For every good anti-hero hero, you need a good anti-villain villain and Geoffrey Rush supplies as Captain Barabossa, the cursed and undead ghost pirate. Rush doesn’t chew the scenery as much as he hisses and skulks through it with a gleeful menace. If the pirate genre is based on the predisposition of young boys enjoying being bad, Rush is the biggest kid of them all. Clearly he is having a royal hoot of a time in his grungy finery, his crappy teeth and slimed hair, and his license to go “big” at will. You can imagine that for an actor who had been cast as utterly restrained (constrained) most of the time, this was a lifetime opportunity.
Little gets said about the director Gore Verbinski whose style doesn’t particularly mirror anyone else’s so much as it bridges. He’s somewhere between the sentimentality of Spielberg and the bombast of Bay. He also is not precious about sticking to a particular style. One of his earliest films was the kids flick Mouse Hunt, a latter day John Hughes-ish slapstick comedy with Nathan Lane. One of his most recent was the animated Rango. In between have been dramas like The Mexican, The Weather Man, and the American adaptation of Japanese horror film The Ring.
It is easy to presume that by having such a wide field to traverse, Verbinski has become adept at letting the spectacle speak for itself rather than inserting any overbearing style, and that is indeed the case. The viewer knows there’s a lot happening there on the screen, but there is no signature move that screams, “It’s a Verbinski” and, really in a movie such as the Pirates films are, you don’t want someone’s imprimatur hanging over the efforts. Oddly, I can’t think of a director that could have pulled the film off other than him because they would be too caught up in their personal bags of tricks.
Having pointed out the elements that tend to stick out the most, it is important to reiterate that the original movie works because it is an ensemble and every arc seems to have equal footing. This is something later forsaken by the equally entertaining Dead Man’s Chest, although one could feel that things were starting to become “The Jack Sparrow Show.” The film is a cliffhanger that leaves the rogue in peril (an obvious parallel to The Empire Strikes Back), returning with At World’s End which nearly killed the franchise due to an unsatisfying, incomprehensible resolution for the Elizabeth and Will story, splattered-against-the-wall plot points barely resolved in chaos, and the realization this was totally the Jack Sparrow Show now. Yet another Pirates film, On Stranger Tides (based on an unrelated novel that pre-dated the movie series), did not have Verbinski at the helm, left Elizabeth and Will entirely out of it, and therefore dissolved the triangle aspect people initially fell for. Sparrow is a really good character in doses. Without counter-balance to his antics, he can become intensely irritating. It remains to be seen if the fifth and forthcoming edition remedies this or whether people have grown tired of Depp in guyliner.
And circling back to the Disney relationship, the Mouse House is now the keepers of Marvel and Lucasfilm, which is an annoying turn of events. Marvel and Disney share a common thread in that neither entity seemed to be able to leave a mine thoroughly unstripped of every ounce of minerals. Disney’s uniformly atrocious made-for-video sequels wrung every last cent out of major and minor property alike. Marvel had been doing that for years with five different X-Men comic books, five different Spider Man books, and so forth. With Lucasfilm now under their wing, we can expect origin films about Han Solo, Boba Fett, the sand creature that ate the small desert rat and burped in Return of the Jedi…you get my point. Say what you want about Lucasfilm under George Lucas’ control, but at least during Star Wars prime period he only pimped out the merchandise mercilessly. We won’t be so lucky in our collective future.
This relates directly to Pirates of the Caribbean because, even though I would appreciate a new Pirates film every couple years in James Bond fashion, Disney is horrible at managing their franchises. The third film suggested it and the fourth confirmed it. Audiences were convinced that was it, totally it, for the franchise and even though it made a small boom on box office openings, it was drubbed severely. That second point doesn’t matter though; just the first one.
So expect Pirates 5 soon, probably in 2014, after Depp, Verbinski, and Bruckheimer’s next Disney effort The Lone Ranger. I hope that both films turn out to be quality entertainment, but the series now winds up being the film that I’m hoping gets trumped by the unknown underdog, much as Pirates 1 was to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Funny how these things wind around.