In one of several cagey evocations of the famed Disneyland ride "Pirates of the Caribbean," Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl includes an image of three hanging skeletons with a sign reading, "PIRATES — YE BE WARNED." Film critics dreading the release of this synergistic Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie--considered by most to be the first film conspicuously "based on" a theme-park ride--read this warning sign in their heads months ago, substituting "CRITICS" for "PIRATES." But it turns out that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is messy fun with enough wit and bustling action to not only demand but deserve an audience.
Verbinski's eerily picturesque prologue introduces the key characters, including the Black Pearl, an infamous pirate ship. Young Elizabeth Swann spots the spectral vessel from the deck of her father's ship. Her father--Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce) and his right-hand-man Norrington (Jack Davenport) fish a boy from the debris of a pirate engagement and put him into Elizabeth's charge. The boy, Will Turner, sports a golden medallion which marks him as the son of a pirate. Years later, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley of Bend It Like Beckham) continues to pine for Will (Orlando Bloom of The Lord of the Rings), now a blacksmith and recreational swordsman. Unfortunately, naval officer Norrington has the full-grown lass in his matrimonial sights, much to the delight of Papa Swann, now a beaming Governor.
And then there's Johnny Depp. From his mock-grandiose entrance as pirate captain Jack Sparrow to his final wink at the camera, Depp marks the spot of the film's gleaming treasure. A flighty rogue, Sparrow soon finds himself in an oceanic grudge match with the fishy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has kidnapped the fair Elizabeth to fulfill his no-good designs. Rush has done this sort of thing before--Barbossa plays like a malign version of Rush's dissipated Phillip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love--and better; here, he is a one-note cartoon, each creep-out line delivered in ghost-story stage-whispers. Depp's eyeline-wearing pirate, swaggering and reeling and slurring with bizarre, rock-star sexuality, may not be multidimensional, but he plunders the show all the same.
All of this turns out to be an excuse designed more for John Knoll's impressive special effects than seafaring swashbucklery. Choosing moonlight over sun, Verbinski sets a murky stage for a coterie of ghouls that gives new meaning to "skeleton crew." Hot scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek) plotted this pirate movie for the blockbuster era. Pirate movies have seemed to be under a curse of their own, culminating in Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island (the 1995 debacle credited with burying Carolco Pictures). But Jerry Bruckheimer is a gold-standard salesman, and he frames Pirates of the Caribbean as a thrill ride poised more between recent throwbacks The Mask of Zorro (also written by Elliott and Rossio) and The Mummy than classics like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. Myself, I'd prefer less of the supernatural "Curse" and more of the high-adventure "Pirates."
Still, Verbinski avoids more of the Bruckheimer pitfalls than those into which he falls. The Bruck saddles Verbinski with a Klaus Badelt score which takes every opportunity to levitate the same-old Bruckheimer theme music from the grave. The film has a meticulously lit Hollywood sheen and a restless hand at the editing suite, but Verbinski's often subdued visuals resist the exponentially hyperbolic bombast that is Bruckheimer's stock-in-trade. The sense of humor here, anchored by Depp, is also generously well-placed by the stars and writers. 'Tween sensation Bloom--wearing a perpetual look of concern--and the equally fetching Knightley make appealing, doe-eyed ingénues, while Pryce and Davenport expertly toe the line between hissable stuffiness and misguided devotion.
Pirates of the Caribbean is exhaustive and a bit exhausting with its parade of pirate tropes (plank-walking, gold teeth, quiet coves, deserted islands, damsels, tarts, swordfights, cannons, parrots, taverns, and--you betcha!--"Arrrr—," "Shiver me timbers!" and "Avast, ye mateys!"). It's not inventive enough (and too illogically repetitive) to justify its bloat, and yet I found myself thankful for an epilogue delivering an exhilarating splash of belated grandstanding action. If you're still hungry after that, stick around for a post-credits bonus. You may not walk out singing "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me," but its unlikely you'll feel cheated of the doubloons you spent on your ticket, popcorn, and bottle of rum, errr, Coke.