Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 09, 2003
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Rated PG-13.
Pirate Errors

The enjoyably weird Johnny Depp redeems Pirates of the Caribbean.


Iím going to start this review of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl with the nitpickiest criticism I have ó the subtitle. Many movies this summer have colons in their titles. Theyíre mostly sequels whose creators werenít content to stick a number on the end of the original movieís title, instead feeling the need to add something marginally descriptive: Full Throttle, Rise of the Machines, Red, White & Blonde. In the case of POTC: TCOTBP, the subtitle is not only unwieldy but also inaccurate. A ship called the Black Pearl figures prominently in the story, but it isnít cursed itself. Itís the pirates sailing the thing who are operating under a curse, which functions whether or not theyíre on the boat. In a way, though, the mouthful of a title is appropriate enough for a movie thatís not awful as much as it is awfully long (135 minutes) and carrying so much ballast that it can barely keep its decks above water.

The Black Pearl is the ship that formerly belonged to Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), known far and wide as the clumsiest pirate on the high seas. He lost the ship when his mutinous crew, led by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), marooned him on a desert island. In his quest to get his boat back, he encounters an ally in a humble blacksmith named Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). The pirates have kidnapped the colonial governorís daughter (Bend It Like Beckhamís Keira Knightley, bearing a disconcerting resemblance to Winona Ryder here), whom Will has loved since they were both children.

The movie is better plotted than youíd expect from something based on a theme park ride. It plays out much like a live-action version of an animated kidsí film. Thatís probably because screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have worked extensively in animated films, most notably Shrek. The wisecracking is more cannon broadside than rapier-like, the gags are broad and physical. (Thereís a quite good one early on showing Captain Jack standing proudly on the mast of a ship that turns out to be the size of a rowboat.) The heroes donít agonize much over what to do next ó they plan according to whether something they want is over here or whether the bad guys are over there. Itís not a bad adventure yarn, and itís certainly preferable to Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. The trouble, however, is that when youíre watching an 18th-century warship make a violent turn that causes everything on board to fall over or spill, itís much more fun if itís animated. Watching the real thing execute the same move is undoubtedly impressive, but youíre also keenly aware of how much manual labor is involved in turning the vessel, and that knowledge is distracting.

Itís now abundantly clear that director Gore Verbinski will never be a filmmaker noted for his originality, though it should be said that he is a talented hack. His films are made with a modicum of intelligence and a minimum of cheap sentiment. He keeps the action moving during the filmís long running time, and there are some nifty special-effects shots of the pirates, who turn out to be skeletons when seen in full moonlight.

Still, none of the special effects comes close to matching Johnny Deppís performance. To a part so underwritten that he might as well be named Lovable Rogue, Depp responds with a delirious cartoon of a performance. He sways, he sashays, he plays to the grandstand. He reads some lines so daintily that they parody themselves, while he delivers others like heís the lead in a contemporary romantic comedy, and he does it all in an accent that he must have found at the bottom of a bottle of rum. So entertaining is his hamming that he overwhelms everything else in the movie. Orlando Bloom, who moved with a whirlwind grace as the elf warrior Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies, is reduced to the consistency of oatmeal here. Knightley shows a bit of genuine spunk, but sheís sucked into the starís undertow as well. Rush, meanwhile, makes the fatal mistake of trying to match Depp mug for mug, and he loses the battle rather badly. (In fact, nothing he has done since playing a remorseless killer in Elizabeth has worked that well. I wonder if weíve overestimated him as an actor.)

Itís Depp, doing his usual weird Johnny Depp things, who reigns supreme in this affair. Hollywood needs to keep him around, because, of all the Esteemed Actors it regularly employs, none except Christopher Walken has Deppís ability to redeem a trashy film by doing something eye-catchingly strange. Though we wouldnít wish away the serious thespian who did such admirable work in Ed Wood and Donnie Brasco, neither would we want a world without the crackpot who plays Captain Jack Sparrow as a puppet come to life. Itís the latter who keeps Pirates of the Caribbean from being a complete bore.

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