This week’s release of the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie is a good time to catch up with the original.
Avast, me hearties and come hear the tale of a terrible pirate curse.
No, not the one about the curse on pieces of gold that turn anyone into the walking undead, revealed as skeletons when touched by moonlight. This is one about the curse of the pirate movie, which has been known to turn fine actors into eye-rolling, scenery-chomping over-actors and empty the bank accounts of movie studios faster than real-life pirates pillaged their victims.
It takes a lot of courage to take on a pirate movie following notable critical and box-office catastrophes like Roman Polanski’s “Pirates” and “Cutthroat Island” with Geena Davis. This one’s origins as a Disney theme park ride didn’t seem too promising.
So maybe it is those low expectations that made this movie seem surprisingly enjoyable.
That is, if swashbuckling, rope-swinging, plank-walking, yard-arm-spinning, rum-drinking, double-crossing, colorful sidekick-joking, and all-around yo-ho-ho-ing sounds like fun, and especially if you know the theme park ride well enough to appreciate a couple of sly references, including a replica of one of the ride’s most memorable moments.
Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the Governor (Jonathan Pryce) is fascinated by pirates. On their voyage from England, Elizabeth helped rescue a boy named Will Turner. While he was unconscious, she took his gold medallion with a skull and crossbones.
Now grown up, Elizabeth (“Bend it Like Beckham’s” Kiera Knightley) is still wearing the medallion and is loved both by Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) and by Will (“Lord of the Rings” heart-throb Orlando Bloom). When the dreaded pirates of the Black Pearl, led by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) sack the town, Elizabeth offers them the medallion if they will leave. They take it, and take her, too. Turner takes off in pursuit with the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), with Norrington and his men right behind them.
It turns out that the medallion is the last of the cursed pieces of gold that turned Barbossa and his crew into the walking dead, always hungry and thirsty, but unable to eat or drink. By restoring the gold to its chest — with the right person’s blood — the curse will be removed.
There are advantages, though, in being a pirate who cannot be killed.
Just like the theme park ride that inspired it, the movie’s greatest strengths are its atmosphere and art direction. The production design has that splendidly imaginative synthesis of classic book illustrations and some innate collective unconsciousness that gets the essence of every detail right, from the curve of the sail to a pirate’s pet monkey. Then come the action sequences, both energetic and entertaining. The script has some nicely creepy twists and some nicely saucy lines. Johnny Depp falls prey to the pirate curse, speaking as though he is recovering from dental surgery and at times seeming to be acting in his own movie completely separate from everyone else. But he is undeniably fun to watch. And with Lord of the Rings heartthrob Orlando Bloom as the hero, you get the two best sets of cheekbones in Hollywood on screen at the same time.
Parents should know that this movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13, and while it is not especially graphic, there are images, including the literally skeleton pirate crew and a false eyeball that keeps coming out, that may be disturbing to some viewers. There are some revealing bodices and some mild sexual references, including prostitutes (not explicit and no nudity or sexual situations). There is some strong and colorful pirate language. Characters drink rum and get tipsy.
Families who see this movie should talk about the rules/guidelines distinction and the movie’s many broken promises. How did the various characters decide which rules they would follow?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy pirate classics like “The Crimson Pirate” with Burt Lancaster and Errol Flynn’s “Against All Flags” and “The Sea Hawk”. Fans of pirate movies with truly over-the-top pirate performers must see Robert Newton’s definitive Long John Silver in “Treasure Island”. For a landlubber version, any version of “Zorro” — with Antonio Banderas, Guy Williams, or Tyrone Power — is swashbuckling fun. And every family should watch “The Princess Bride”. Disney’s “Shipwrecked” is a sort of “Home Alone” with pirates, a neglected delight starring Gabriel Byrne. Fans of musicals will also like the Gilbert and Sullivan gem “The Pirates of Penzance”, with Kevin Kline as the Pirate King and the delightful “The Pirate” with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.