- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” jeopardizes an excellent chance to emerge as the most clever and entertaining revamp of buccaneer glorification in the 50 years since Burt Lancaster and sidekick Nick Cravat gave the genre a playful and acrobatic boost in “The Crimson Pirate.” The curse of “Pirates” turns out to be the inability of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski to resist the modern merchandising doctrine that everything is better if it’s “supersized.”

If the filmmakers had managed to resolve their adventure after an apparent showdown in a treasure cavern on a forlorn island, the movie might have sailed away in triumph, making the most of a streamlined and enjoyable running time of 100 minutes or so. Instead, “Pirates” doubles back to the same haunted location for an anti-climactic showdown with the same characters and cargo of conflicts that were poised for a timely resolution half an hour earlier. As a result, a buoyant and diverting show outstays its welcome.

My disenchantment with the interminable fourth act of “Pirates” could be an eccentric or perhaps generational complaint. But I didn’t feel the same restlessness at “The Mask of Zorro,” which had almost the same running time and derived from a screenplay by the same team entrusted with “Pirates,” Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose humorous flair with swashbucklers was also evident in “Aladdin” and “Shrek.”

When “Pirates” is at its most diverting, one gladly plays along with an astute blend of comic characterization and rejuvenated adventure cliches, commencing with the theft of an exotic heirloom, a gold medallion with a skull carved in the center, and encompassing vigorous sword duels and pitched battles at sea.



Johnny Depp, obviously enjoying himself in an extroverted and roguish masquerade, makes a witty entrance as a pirate captain called Jack Sparrow, who steps from the mast of a sinking skiff onto the pier at Port Royal harbor in Jamaica just before his vessel disappears from sight. For a while, the movie itself is a model of nimble footwork.

A spacey, feline, Rastafarian variation on a wily sea dog, Jack makes common cause with Orlando Bloom as a valiant young apprentice blacksmith and sword virtuoso named Will Turner in an effort to retrieve Keira Knightley as an adventure-hungry ingenue, Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the English governor of Port Royal. Abducted by Jack’s treacherous mate, Barbossa, embodied with gravely corrupt authority by Geoffrey Rush, Elizabeth is bound for the cursed treasure island, hostage to a blood sacrifice that is never quite as perilous as advertised.

The screenwriters invent a plausible professional rivalry between Jack and Barbossa, who fomented a mutiny to capture Jack’s ship, the Black Pearl, and a plausible romantic one between Will and a naval officer, Norrington, who has proposed to Elizabeth. The script bravely refuses to dismiss Norrington as a mere stuffed shirt. Indeed, Jack Davenport’s performance persuades you that Norrington is as devoted and courageous as Will, although the movie doesn’t permit him to demonstrate a comparable prowess and resourcefulness.

The writers also provide fairly reliable material for a set of comedy teams: Giles New and Angus Barnett as discursive Redcoats and Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook as scurvy members of the Barbossa crew, one troubled by a portable eyeball. Sparrow also gets an admirable first mate in Kevin R. McNally’s Gibbs, discovered sleeping with swine in Tortuga but articulate and informative when sobered up.

Produced by the Disney company, the movie is, of course, a belated companion piece to a venerable attraction at Disneyland. Mr. Verbinski seems to have encouraged cinematographer Dariusz Wolski to emphasize a fog-shrouded and potentially spooky mood in several sequences.

The evocative photography seems more effective than the literal spook show on the bill: the appearance of undead pirates, whose skeletal aspect is visible by moonlight. There’s a stubborn suspension-of-disbelief problem: How vulnerable can an undead pirate be to any kind of injury inflicted by humans?

The filmmakers imagine they’ve contrived a method to finally dispose of the phantoms, after bringing them back for too many indecisive encores, but the whole supernatural dimension of the conflict looks superfluous. The technically demanding effects may have doubled the budget while reducing the human interest.

If there’s a reason to find zombie pirates more interesting than mortal pirates, it remains elusive in “Pirates.” If you want to clutter up the screen, however, zombie pirates will obviously suffice.

**1/2

TITLE: “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details in an adventure spectacle format; occasional elements of supernatural horror)

CREDITS: Directed by Gore Verbinski. Screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Production design by Brian Morris. Costume design by Penny Rose. Stunt coordinator: George Marshall Ruge. Sword masters: Robert Anderson and Mark Ivie. Visual effects supervisor: John Knoll. Make-up effects by Keith Vanderlaan. Music by Klaus Badelt

RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING:FOUR STARS

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