Just the mere fact that the subtitle The Curse of the Black Pearl dangles below the title Pirates of the Caribbean like leads one to expect that Disney is hedging its bets and hoping for a Pirates franchise (you'll see no similar subtitle on the forthcoming The Haunted Mansion). Just think of the possibilities: Pirates of the Caribbean: Blackbeard's Ghost's Close Shave or Pirates of the Caribbean: Return to Cutthroat Island. That the movie -- based on one of the oldest and most popular rides at Disney Land/World -- made a small fortune its first weekend out of the docks, kicking the classics illustrated ass of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, pretty much assures at least some sort of sequel.
And if that's the case, we can only hope Disney will convince Johnny Depp to reprise his role as the off-kilter, moderately flamboyant, probably bisexual, good-hearted pirate captain, Jack Sparrow. Depp remains one of the more interesting actors of his generation, mostly in terms of how he chooses to play his characters -- typically with a large grain of salt affixed to his shoulder and a big wink to the audience and his fellow actors. He's a fun actor to spend time watching -- and in Pirates he doesn't disappoint.
Gore Verbinski, on the other hand, does. The director of The Ring is impeded by the iron fist of his lord and master on this film, producer Jerry "All Things Must Explode " Bruckheimer. Still, Verbinski's Pirates is more endurable than any other film from the past fifty years involving sea-farin' buccaneers, including the 1982 Christopher Atkins vehicle The Pirate Movie.
Depp and Bloom
That Pirates of the Caribbean incorporates a ghost story -- the scourge aboard the Black Pearl are, as the title suggests, cursed (they are neither living nor dead, and when they pass through moonlight, they turn into a skeleton crew, literally) -- is a big plus, distracting from the raging boredom typically associated with cannonballs, a few yo-ho-hos, and a bottle of rum (but then the same could have been said for a shirtless Atkins). The greater point is: Pirates are by and large crappy movie villains. When the world has been threatened by self-aware, humanity obliterating machines from the future, a few acne-scarred, dirty-fingernailed scallywags seem almost quaint by comparison.
The plot is an idiot's paradox -- idiotically convoluted and idiotically simplistic at the same time. But the basic essence this: The Black Pearl arrives at the British Caribbean outpost of Port Royal and its crew, led by Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, on overacting autopilot) kidnap the Governor's daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, a refreshing presence, like a swig of Sierra Mist), who just so happens to hold the key to lifting the Black Pearl's dreadful curse.
Rush and company
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Let's just say that the blacksmith's apprentice, strapping young Will Turner, played to the hilt of leading man blandness by Orlando Bloom, harbors a secret past so secret even he wasn't aware of it. Had the movie ended with Elizabeth's initial ordeal, this behemoth might have been over and done with in an exceedingly reasonable hour and fifteen minutes. But no, we've still got an hour and a half of movie to endure -- and that includes a several more yawn-inducing swashbuckling shtick and a completely unnecessary second trip to the Pirate's secret cove.
I wasn't completely bored by Pirates, but nor was I much in the way of entertained. The movie floats before you like a piece of driftwood, veering just this side of that line of demarcation known as competency.
Truth be told, Pirates isn't one my favorite Disney rides (though it sure as hell beats Tom Saywer's Treehouse). Still, the movie is more thrilling than the sedate boat ride and may, in fact, diminish the ride's attendance. Unless, of course, Disney has plans to overhaul the ride with a Capt. Jack Sparrow animatronic figure, complete with an excess of mascara and a limp wrist that has a swishy little mind all its own.
Anyone who's stayed awake through the Pirates ride will instantly recognize the cute little dioramas pilfered from the ride and wedged into the film -- including that awww-inducing moment involving a dog with a prison key in its mouth. Touchstones like these may serve no purpose than to make the movie longer than it already needs to be.
Other critics have noted that Pirates is the first film based on a Disney theme park attraction. Have they forgotten the wildlife massacre known as The Country Bears? What with the fall release of Mansion, Disney's parks are a mine the company seems intent on shamelessly plundering. Whether the results are a treasure trove of enjoyable movies or lumps of coal remains to be seen. All I know is, my timbers shiver at the thought of It's A Small World: The Teeny-Tiny Adventure.
Randy Shulman can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.