When it was first announced that Disney was making a movie based on their Pirates of the Caribbean ride, it sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Imagine, if you will, a movie based on a 36-year old theme park attraction, starring the always-game Johnny Depp, the star of “Bend It Like Beckham,” and the guy who played the blonde elf in “The Lord of the Rings.” It was a $140 million pirate epic, from Gore Verbinski, the director of “Mousehunt” and “The Ring.” Prior efforts to update an old fashioned Errol Flynn swashbuckler included Renny Harlin’s 1995 “Cutthroat Island” and Roman Polanski’s 1986 “Pirates,” both expensive and embarrassing flops.
Verbinski’s film, which was given a mouthful of a title (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”), was opening against summer movie behemoths like “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” and “Finding Nemo.” The first trailer didn’t feature any actors and only offered shots of remote islands, revealing one in the shape of a skull. It was an awful sneak preview and the movie appeared like an easy pick for the biggest flop of the summer. Even “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonder” seemed like a stronger player than Johnny Depp’s Disney pirate movie.
Then, on July 9th 2003, Verbinski’s film opened, was met with great reviews and became a pirate ship-sized blockbuster. Against all odds, the long-dead Pirate movie genre had resurfaced. There are lots of reasons why Verbinski’s film became a massive success, such as its healthy sense of humor, great action set pieces and vivid special effects. Yet, the biggest reason was Depp, whose decision to make his grungy, alcoholic, hygienically challenged, foolish and lovable Captain Jack Sparrow a defiantly offbeat creation hit big. Despite being an unruly, rum-soaked criminal, Sparrow quickly became one of the most quoted, impersonated and beloved Disney characters since Dory the fish.
The inevitable sequel, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men’s Chest,” appeared three years later and it was clear from opening day that the audience couldn’t get enough of Captain Jack Sparrow. When Depp first appears, busting his way out of a floating coffin, the audience I sat with in a sold out screening erupted into cheers. Yet, something else happened with the back-to-back “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels: the charming, if overstuffed, original had spun off two elephantine sequels. Captain Jack, like Neo in the ambitious but unloved “Matrix” sequels, was now just one of a dozen main characters swirling in an overcooked stew of a tale with far too many ingredients.
The accusations that these ‘Pirates of the Caribbean” movies were losing their charm and focus was even more clear by the third entry, the 2007 “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” a problematic but occasionally brilliant end to the original trilogy.
It begins with a pre-credits sequence in which massive hangings are occurring. We see men, women and children being hung, in rapid succession, as the music sonically resembles crashing waves. It’s a shocking start and the first of many scenes in which the violence is especially vivid and savage. The mythical whimsy of the prior film, which climaxed with Captain Jack Sparrow being gobbled up by the Kraken, seemed to have evaporated.
The setting then switches to Singapore, as Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) are on a mission to rescue Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from Captain Feng (played by Chow Yun-Fat in a full Fu Manchu beard). This lengthy sequence, which plays like the Leia/Lando rescue of Han Solo from the top of “Return of the Jedi” but is awash in George Miller-like “Mad Max” mise en scene, is quite odd but striking. Verbinski is clearly more interested in establishing mood and character than building momentum. The scenes that follow are dour and exposition-heavy, though always maintaining Verbinksi’s grand scale and a welcome tongue in cheek approach when needed. Well into the first act, we finally meet up with Captain Jack Sparrow and it’s in the most gloriously weird fashion possible. Sparrow exists in the world of Davy Jone’s Locker and, like Dave Bowman’s Star Child in “2001- A Space Odyssey,” dwells in a landscape with dream logic and surreal touches. This sequence includes a bit where Rock Crabs gather together and assist Sparrow in pushing a pirate ship across a vast desert. All of this is extraordinary, as the warped imagination of Verbinski and his screenwriters, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, bring the impossibly screwy to life.
Unfortunately, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” which, flaws and all, is my favorite entry in this franchise, is a movie of moments. At 169 minutes, its absurdly overlong and has lots of scenes that could have been abbreviated or cut altogether. Many of the supporting characters are ethnic stereotypes (I wonder if Naomi Harris now regrets playing her silly witch character) and the numerous subplots are too many to keep track of. The low point is the needless business involving the identity of “Calypso,” which leads to an elaborate but lousy scene with a character becoming a giant.
Verbinski’s film demands patience and a zest for pulpy pirate tales (anyone who devoured Michael Crichton’s posthumous novel, “Pirate Latitudes” is the perfect audience for this). The sequences that work (like a ship that is literally rocked back and forth into another world, Sparrow’s encounter with The Pirate King and the thunderous, multi-ship sword/cannon/magic battle at sea) are marvelous and richly imaginative. Depp is reliably very funny and gives his every scene the weird inventiveness it needs. Bloom and Knightley go through the motions but Rush is especially good, as is Bill Nihy (behind oodles of pixilated artistry) and Tom Hollander’s Cutler Beckett remains the best of Sparrow’s many foes.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” was, at one point, the most expensive film ever made and became the top grossing film of its year. I haven’t seen the fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment as of this writing but was underwhelmed by the fourth “On Stranger Tides.” The wildness of Depp’s pairing with Verbinski may not always click (as evidenced by their later “The Lone Ranger”). Yet, when it often does, especially in “At World’s End,” there’s a manic, anything-goes spirit at play, as though Verbinski had no limits in staging the craziest spectacle ever concocted for children…based on a charmingly creaky old Disneyland ride. If you watch this movie, listen closely- you can hear Terry Gilliam laughing appreciably in the distance.