Ship of Ghouls, Entertainment Weekly (US), July 18, 2003
by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Drowning in F/X, Pirates of the Caribbean has all the depth of a theme-park ride.
Navigating by the trade route mapped out for Pirates of the Caribbean: The
Curse of the Black Pearl, I reckon we’ve drifted into the Bermuda Triangle
of the summer season, where movies disappear in front of our very eyes. Dead men
tell no tales, the sea chantey goes, but neither will ticket buyers after
sitting through this F/X-rattling Disney feature based on the Disney theme-park
attraction and founded on the Disney notion that American character is best
strengthened by exposing children to the horrors of computerized skeletal
buccaneers: Minutes after we’ve left behind the clatter and spectacle, all
remembrance of plot vanishes.
What remains is an unreliable memory of Johnny Depp, whipping up the weirdest
gale force of character wind since his thespian role model, Marlon Brando,
populated ''The Island of Dr. Moreau.'' And under the circumstances the actor’s
eccentric capering counts as welcome entertainment. Though it’s never made clear
why Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is such a campy chappy -- the only begotten son,
perhaps, of rum-pitchman Captain Morgan and the Madwoman of Chaillot -- at least
Depp’s nutty feyness is something fresh in a summer of freeze-dried adventure
In all other regards, ''Pirates'' steams ahead on a mirthless course of
script beats and busy action sequences, coldly steered by director Gore
Verbinski (''The Ring'') to the boom-blast-blare coordinates of producing
commodore Jerry Bruckheimer. (A boom-blast-blare score by ''Gladiator''
cocomposer Klaus Badelt proves that if suspense takes place without drums and
horns to announce it, it don’t mean a thing.)
In the hurly-burly saga devised by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie,
and Jay Wolpert, and written by Elliott and Rossio (who struck real gold
cowriting ''Shrek''), Sparrow is a freelance gentleman-rogue operator out to
recapture his ship, the Black Pearl, which has been stolen from under his
fluttering fingers by his nemesis, the floridly villainous Captain Barbossa (an
expansive Geoffrey Rush, who knows exactly what kind of grog he’s sloshing in).
Sparrow’s ally is blacksmith-with-a-past Will Turner (''The Lord of the Rings''’
Orlando Bloom), who partners up with the pirate for his own romantic reasons:
Held hostage aboard Barbossa’s cruise to nowhere, Turner’s beloved, Elizabeth
Swann (''Bend It Like Beckham''’s Keira Knightley), daughter of a British
colonial governor (Jonathan Pryce), fights for her freedom.
It’s ornate and breathless, this hoopla of a pirate story about honor and
thievery and drawn swords and gilt buttons; the movie is also undecided about
whether to emulate the dashing tradition of ''Treasure Island'' and ''Captain
Blood'' or, in bloodless postmodern style, to wink at what it appears to honor.
Knightley, all peaches, cream, and pout, huffs prettily as an adventuress
trapped in the life of a corseted young lady. Bloom, a true heartthrob, makes a
fitting swain. Human interaction, though, is only a time waster between
theme-park displays of CGI prowess, in which Verbinski -- never a visual
minimalist -- seizes on the ghoulish creepiness of Barbossa’s pirate crew,
haunted as they are by a curse that keeps them dead-but-not-dead men. (BBC
America fans will enjoy seeing skinny Mackenzie Crook out of ''The Office,''
It’s back to Depp we go, then, fascinated, if nothing else, by the way he
commandeers the movie with his every barmy line reading. ''The Pirates''
production notes cheerfully report that the actor ''developed his ideas for the
character of Jack while reading the script in his sauna,'' and that he ''had
strong ideas about Jack’s attitude and appearance.'' Waving his pinkies in the
air, rolling his eyes rimmed in glitter-rock shadow, lolling languidly, and
speaking in a mysterious, slurred accent inspired in part, he has said, by
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Looney Toons’ Gallic skunk Pepé Le
Pew, Depp certainly has character ideas. But who is this exceedingly unbuckled
And is the laugh not only on the conventions of the genre, but also on us?
''Pirates of the Caribbean'' is so bifurcated a project -- half perfunctory
action saga, half Monty Python festival of theatrical mugging -- that a ticket
to the thrill-less ride may result in the altogether more alienating sensation
that no one’s in charge -- indeed, that for two and a quarter hours, a twisted
battle for control has been taking place between Verbinski/Bruckheimer, who
demand a vertiginous historical thriller, and Depp, who fancies a bit of arch
vogueing while sporting shells in his braided hair.
There may be nothing more fun for actors than experimental exaggeration,
especially when filming on a Caribbean island. But there’s nothing that makes an
audience feel less welcome than not being in on the joke.