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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl   B

Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Jay Wolpert
Cast: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook.

Review by Rob Vaux

We are just about due for some unpretentious fun. As the summer behemoths roll onward, that term feels less like a statement of purpose and more like an excuse. Sloppy productions? Cynical franchising? Shameless admission that the first weekend's grosses are all that matters? "Don't blame us," they say. "It's just UNPRETENTIOUS FUN!" But Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a marked step up. It's cut from the same cloth as all the others -- with producer Jerry Bruckheimer above the credits and dubious origins in a Disneyland theme park ride -- yet it knows the difference between getting you to buy a ticket and giving you your money's worth.

The pirate genre has been in a perennial funk since Errol Flynn died -- burdened by latter-day efforts like Hook and Cutthroat Island which crushed their entertainment value beneath bloat and bombast. The sets and production values became so vast that they devoured any sense of flair, rendering the action as heavy as a lumberjack's breakfast. Pirates of the Caribbean, on the other hand, treats its trappings like elaborate party favors: enjoyable, but solely frosting on the cake. Director Gore Verbinski takes a playful Rube Goldberg approach to his massive ships and Jamaican towns, viewing them as a source of amusement rather than a solemn technical spectacle. He anchors them with his stars, embellishing the actors' energy and personality, and letting the sets play off them instead of the other way around. The results make Pirates fast-moving, quick-witted, and light on its feet.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Johnny Depp, the film's roguish lead and biggest asset. As 17th Century scalawag Jack Sparrow, Depp bleeds addled charm from every shot, his infectious grin readily spreading to the remainder of the ensemble. Sparrow is precisely the kind of rogue this film needs, exchanging drunken banter with the local soldiery as quickly as he steals their purses. Naturally, his first good deed in quite awhile -- rescuing governor's daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from the sea after she faints from a tight corset -- lands him straight in the clink, there to face the consequences of his swashbuckling past.

The past, however, isn't through with him just yet... nor the lass whose life he saved. Sparrow's former crew, led by the evil Captain Barbossa (a terrifically hammy Geoffrey Rush), is in search of a missing cache of Aztec gold, whose final piece just happens to be hanging around Swann's lovely neck. Shortly after Sparrow's arrest, the scoundrels launch a devastating attack from their ship, the Black Pearl, abducting Elizabeth and leaving the nearby naval outpost a shambles. When the authorities refuse to move against them quickly enough, Elizabeth's would-be paramour Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, suitably dashing) springs Sparrow after exacting a promise to lead him to the pirates' hideout.

It's all delightful balderdash, and Verbinski knows how to keep us in the spirit of things. He also holds the film's big effects pieces in proper context, especially those concerning the Black Pearl's crew. The Aztec gold is cursed, you see, transforming the pirates who stole it into skeletal undead (their true form is hidden until the moonlight shines upon them). They seek the coins in order to lift the curse, a proposition that involves Will's late father and an ominous-sounding blood sacrifice. The gimmick might have sunk less whimsical pictures, but like the stunts, sea chases, and other bits of Pirates' derring-do, it's treated with such glee that we embrace it without a second thought. Verbinski trusts his material to keep us engaged, and takes the time to revel in the proceedings (such as a sequence when Elizabeth is bounced among the Pearl's crew like a horrified pinball), rather than rushing us from one set piece to the next. Pirates also pays subtle attention to the genre's little details (such as sailor suspicions and piracy's historic codes of behavior), and Verbinski adds a few clever references to the Disneyland ride -- easily spotted for those in the know, but never intrusive or disruptive.

Sadly, some noticeable flaws do mar the proceedings. The action turns repetitive a few times too many and the storyline seeks to be serviceable rather than watertight, resulting in periodic non-sequiturs. The specifics of the curse fall apart under close examination, and the loose script threads are tied up by a horrendous 10-minute denouement that borders on the ludicrous (the wrong kind of ludicrous). But none of that -- not one tiny shred -- matters a whit when the "arrrgh"s and "says I"s start flying. If the particulars don't always hang together, Verbinski and company make sure we're chuckling too loudly to care. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl makes us appreciate the absurd joys of a sadly underused genre, and demonstrates that Walt Disney hasn't entirely forgotten how to show us a good time. Too often these days, "fun" becomes a bait-and-switch; for this crew, it's a badge of honor.

Review published 07.07.2003.

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