Both the best and worst film ever inspired by a theme park ride, “Pirates of the Caribbean” will pose a unique challenge to the various year’s-end awards-giving entities, which will have to decide if the picture is an original or actually an adaptation of something, even if that something has no narrative or name characters. On second thought, it’s safe to say the issue will almost certainly not come up, given that the script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio doesn’t come within a sea-dog’s spitting distance of these clever writers’ work on “Shrek.” Still, this Jerry Bruckheimer production could have been a lot worse, given the premise, and enough disarming humor, engaging acting and colorful action bursts through to keep things amusing enough for about 90 of the picture’s uncalled-for 143 minutes. The 50-year slump in pirate picture B.O. notwithstanding, Disney should pocket some tidy coin from this boisterous attraction here and abroad.
After enjoying heady days when Douglas Fairbanks and then Errol Flynn sailed the cinematic seas, the pirate picture pretty much sank into economic oblivion after Disney’s “Treasure Island” and the Burt Lancaster hit “The Crimson Pirate” in the early ’50s. Discounting Steven Spielberg’s misfired “Hook,” which benefited from its “Peter Pan” connection, the recent decades have been long ones for seafaring criminals, as everything from “Swashbuckler,” “The Pirate Movie” and “Yellowbeard” to Roman Polanski’s “Pirates” and Renny Harlin’s notorious “Cutthroat Island” has found the commercial currents very treacherous indeed.
Undaunted, Disney and Bruckheimer have jumped in with colors flown high, sabers firmly in hand and CGI artists employed en masse, and the picture does represent something new for each of them: this is the first time that the “Walt Disney Presents” banner has been used on a PG-13 release, and it also marks the first Bruckheimer production set prior to the 20th century.
Hinging on a gold medallion much coveted by the miserable lot who sail under the skull and crossbones on the Black Pearl, action unsurprisingly pits the ragged ruffians under the command of the infamous Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) against the British crown, repped here by Caribbean isles Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) and the area’s naval leader, Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport). Latter is a terribly serious fellow keen to marry Swann’s fetchingly feisty teenage daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley).
The wild card in the mix is Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a rather dippy pirate who unceremoniously arrives in Port Royal in desperate need of a ship. Just as he is managing to humiliate the Brits by commandeering the H.M.S. Interceptor out of harbor, the city is attacked by Barbossa’s goons. The latter kidnap Elizabeth, who eight years before found the medallion from Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) when he washed up on a raft after a pirate attack.
Living on the remnants of some formerly formidable wits, Sparrow slithers between both sides in the conflict. The British would be happy to fit him for a noose anytime, but he saves his neck temporarily by agreeing to help earnest blacksmith Will rescue Elizabeth, who willingly hands over the medallion to Barbossa on board the Black Pearl, only to be spirited away to the caves of Tortuga.
There, the importance of the medallion is revealed: Surrounded by a small mountain of treasure, Barbossa discloses that his crew, victims of the “curse of Cortez,” are, in fact, the walking dead, which explains why they can alternate between fleshly bodies and skeletons. To lift the curse, Barbossa needs not only this final piece of gold to be restored to the collection, but some particular blood. But whose? Elizabeth’s? Will’s? It takes a while for him to figure this out, and considerably longer to arrange to obtain it.
Narrative has the medallion changing hands, and Jack’s loyalties tested, at least once too often, and in the final stretch — and it is that — the filmmakers pile apparent climax upon apparent climax to such an extent that it really is impossible to know if they’re faking it.
Still, the picture’s constant forward movement and breezy sense of amusement about itself provide a certain mild sort of diversion. Dialogue is peppered with chuckle-inducing, often self-deprecating riffs, Gore Verbinski’s direction has a nimble lightness of touch that’s far preferable to a heavy hand, the action has moments of flair, and the canvas has been painted with attractive colors (even if sometimes too obviously so by CGI doodlers).
But most surprisingly for a theme-park ride movie, it’s the two central performances that command the most attention. Elaborately decked out with a bandana, raccoon-like black eye makeup, dreadlocks, two beard braids and lousy teeth (there’s a screen credit “dental special effects for Johnny Depp”), the magnetic star cuts an unusual figure magnified in oddness by the eccentric layerings he gives to Jack Sparrow.
Frequently slurring his words but usually intelligible (Depp also had two specially credited sound technicians), the actor makes his character convincingly half-daft, with fey mannerisms that raise even more interesting questions. Although there is no specific referencing, Depp’s turn here nonetheless puts one in mind of some of Marlon Brando’s more oddball screen outings, which often ended up being the most interesting elements in those pictures even if they weren’t particularly coherent or even plausible.
Hitting exactly the right tone is Rush, who in every way fulfills the universal fantasy of what a treacherous, bloodthirsty and capable pirate captain should be. Thesp single-handedly makes all his scenes more delicious than they would be without him and provides a satisfying foil for Depp, as well as a fascinating contrast in acting styles.
Bloom is fine, but can do only so much with his conventional role, while Knightley, currently on view in “Bend It Like Beckham,” specializes here in striking determined, willful poses while in positions of dire jeopardy.