Saturday, 13 August 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 58 - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

#43 - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Now chances are that when you were a little kid, if you didn’t want to be a superhero, secret agent or a cowboy (or princess for the young ladies) then you wanted to be a pirate. I wasn’t really one of those children, aside from a couple of games with other children who did want to be pirates. I never really watched many big pirate movies aside from Peter Pan or Treasure Island and apparently these kind of swashbuckling adventures were really big way back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. As is the case with most genres the pirate movies fell out of fashion and an attempt by Cutthroat Island to revive them pretty much just killed them completely. However the Disney studio picked up the slack and delivered us this...

Our setting is the Caribbean island of Port Royal, an English colony run by a governor. His only daughter Elizabeth Swann is a bit different from the typical English ladies of the time (the 18th century to be exact) in that she loves to read and has quite a fascination with pirates. She’s been fascinated by them ever since she found a pirate medallion on her young friend Will Turner the day they first met, and caught a glimpse of a ship with black sails. On this day in particular, an eccentric pirate called Jack Sparrow arrives in Port Royal and inexplicably saves Elizabeth from drowning but is thrown in jail for being a pirate (Georgian people have an odd attitude towards gratitude). That night, the famed pirate ship The Black Pearl arrives in Port Royal, ransacking the town and kidnapping Elizabeth (well she invokes Parlay and requests to be taken to the ship) because she has the medallion they want. Annoyed that the governor and the commodore aren’t doing much to help Elizabeth, Will springs Jack from jail in the hopes that he’ll lead him to the Pearl and rescue Elizabeth. However Jack seems to have an angle against the Captain Barbossa and he also hints that he knew Will’s father quite some time ago. Meanwhile Elizabeth discovers that the pirates are actually cursed in a pretty grotesque way.

As someone who never really had that much experience with pirate movies, I’m not sure how I should go about describing this film except that I enjoyed it a lot. Would you believe it was actually based on a theme park ride at Disney World that was around since the 1960s? I was actually surprised to see the Disney label on this film specifically considering it’s pretty grim in places and would seem more suited to the Touchstone label just in case the moral guardians started freaking out. Oh well, I suppose having villains that can’t actually be killed probably has a hand in there somewhere. One thing that I’d like to point out that makes this film different from the sequels is that it’s a lot more realistic. True there are undead pirates as the villains but it’s presented in a fairly realistic way. It is more of a proper swashbuckling adventure with a supernatural twist on it while the sequels added in a lot more fantastic elements like sea monsters, mermaids, giant goddesses and a lot more double crossing. I enjoyed the sequels anyway (Dead Man’s Chest not so much) but this film is the best of them and is the only one on my list for a number of other reasons in addition to the one mentioned above. The second film definitely tried way too hard to be a comedy, throwing in a lot of unnecessary slapstick stuff and some things being a bit too ridiculous, but the third film toned them down a bit. 

Our four leads are all entertaining in their own way. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow was actually never intended to be the main character, just a side player. You can see that in the way that his story is mostly how he interacts with Will and Elizabeth. Believe it or not he wasn’t written the way Depp plays him – he was originally written to be a sleek businessman type of guy, pretty much a pirate James Bond. But Depp added a whole lot more to the character, basing him off Keith Richards and giving us the Jack we all know and love. That’s the cause of the weird way he’s written in the sequels, since the writers were trying to write him as a bigger clown. When I first saw this film, it was just after Lord of the Rings was over so my brother and I both still thought Orlando Bloom was cool (he was Legolas after all) and I think he’s pretty good in this film. Will is a much more entertaining character than Paris anyway though I didn’t like his performance in the sequels. Geoffrey Rush is practically God in this film as Barbossa with the accent and the mannerisms. His scenes with Jack are just a treat to watch to see both of these fine characters work with each other. Now there’s our leading lady who is none other than the charming and not-legal-yet Keira Knightley in only her third starring role. She certainly doesn’t look under eighteen and I remember that it’s okay for me to...admire the goods considering I was eleven years old when this came out. She was overdoing it a bit in the sequels but I really like Elizabeth’s character here. True these days you do have some really forced attempts at feminism (see Keira’s Guinevere) but Elizabeth feels like a realistic eighteenth century feminist, knowing her stuff through books but having to learn it the hard way in combat. Avatar fans will also recognise Zoe Saldana as Anamaria, the one who gives Jack a slap that he definitely deserves. The rest of the characters are all fun and written to be very entertaining, even Elizabeth’s father with that expression he has when a pirate has the nerve to try and steal his wig.

Let’s talk a bit about the visuals, since I haven’t had much of a chance to do that in a while (I think the last time I talked visuals was for Peter Pan as well, go figure). The production design is not too romanticised but has been described as “historical fantasy”. I don’t know exactly how to elaborate on that but that’s really the best expression to use in describing this film. We do get a lot of nice visuals and shots of the seascape, and the few islands that the characters end up on. Jack and Elizabeth’s deserted island doesn’t seem like a bad place to spend three days drinking rum and Port Royal is quite an impressive setpiece as well. A quick scroll through the Goofs listings on IMDb will reveal a few historical inaccuracies but I didn’t notice any so who cares right? At least they’re not dancing to We Will Rock You or Golden Years at any rate. My favourite set is the cave on the Isla de Muerta where we see all the pirates’ treasure. It’s pretty cool the way they have the small pools of water and all the treasure scattered around, making it a good place to have the climactic swashbuckling scene. If I had to pick which ship I liked best, I’ll have to say The Interceptor.

I couldn’t get enough of the action scenes in this film; there aren’t really that many big proper ones throughout the film apart from a few scuffles so the proper battle between The Interceptor and The Black Pearl is the big one that stands out. I’m a little reluctant to watch some older pirate movies because there’s no way back then they could have replicated a scene like that. If I had been younger when this film came out, that would definitely have been the scene me and my friends recreated on the playground. The final swashbuckling scene between Jack, Barbossa, Will, Elizabeth and the poor unnamed pirates who get a pole rammed through their stomachs and a bomb in their ribcages is also pretty high up there and I’m sure us kids would have done that a few times though it’s probably best we didn’t as I don’t know how we would have tried to recreate the bomb part. The duel between Jack and Will in the Blacksmith’s is cool and hilarious with all Jack’s facial expressions, especially when the sword lands in the door. And a big pat on the back goes to whoever thought of the two of them going at it up on the rafters. In terms of non-action related scenes, the entire sequence of Jack and Elizabeth stuck on the island is pure comedy gold:

*Elizabeth: “You spent three days lying on a beach drinking rum!”
Jack: “Welcome to the Caribbean”

*Elizabeth: “Mr Sparrow, I’m not sure I’ve had enough rum to allow that kind of talk”

*Jack: “{mimicking Elizabeth} Must have been terrible for you to be trapped here, Jack, must have been terrible for you. Well it bloody is now!”

So there you have it: proof that pirate movies could make it at the box office, even after Cutthroat Island nearly buried the genre completely and proof that a movie based off a theme park ride could work (I’m still waiting in anticipation for the movie based on the Ferris Wheel). Along with Peter Pan, this is the only real pirate movie I’ve ever seen and maybe one day I’ll go back and see all these so called classics that I don’t even know the names of right now. Keep a weather eye on the computer and follow me on Twitter. Ahoy, me hearties!

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