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Step up, suckers, for ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, LA Times\Washington Post, August 9, 2003
typed by Becky Greenleaf

PIRATES of the Caribbean, the first PG-13-rated release from Walt Disney Pictures marks the latest step in the parent company’s embrace of synergy, a corporate high concept in which one division exploits the resources of another. As with last July’s howling flopperoo, The Country Bears, Pirates of the Caribbean traces its roots not to a classic novel or children’s book or Broadway show, but to a theme park attraction. Step aboard, suckers.

As such waxworks exhibits have no true characters as such, they had to be invented. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who co-wrote Shrek (based on a book by the cartoonist William Steig), worked with Australia’s Stuart Beattie and game show veteran Jay Wolper, to devise four principal figures to animate a rather feeble and febrile plot. Johnny Depp, wearing more eye make-up than Drew Barrymore in Charlie’s Angels 2, takes on the comic operetta lead as The Pirate King, Capt Jack Sparrow. Geoffrey Rush, looking like Errol Flynn at the end of his rope, plays a zombie Hook or Long John Silver as the chief villain, Captain Barbossa, commander of the Black Pearl. Orlando Bloom, fresh from his elfish master archer Legolas in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, recalls the very young Errol Flynn as the low-born blacksmith\sword forger Will Turner. Keira Knightley, who resembles the adolescent Brooke Shields! , has a standard role in Caribbean pirate movies, the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann.

The interaction among these four rangers from mocking to melodramatic. Depp, who seems to be turning some secret joke over in his mind, clearly mirrors his life as a Paris Bohemian as the insouciant Sparrow. First seen atop a mast entering the harbor of Jamaica’s Port Royal, he is captain (a title he insists upon) of a sinking ship, which submerges just in time for him to step off onto a dock. It is a deadpan gag out of Buster Keaton, beloved by Depp, and by an earlier expatriate in Paris, Samuel Beckett.

This is one of the neatest tricks in the catalogue of the director, Gore Verbinski whose fortunes recovered in The Ring after the near disaster of the sputtering star-driven The Mexican. Soon thereafter, Verbinski borrows the improvised submarine stunt from a far better buccaneer spoof, Robert Siodmak’s Mediterranean-based The Crimson Pirate. Ultimately though, Pirates falls prey to the demands of its producer, disaster master Jerry Bruckheimer.

Those pitched hand-to-hand, cutlass-wielding battles on the decks of galleons and clippers always obligatory but unreadable, become more chaotic than ever as overseen by Verbinski and his minions. The difference here is that the crew of the ghost ship, captained by Sparrow until a mutiny lead by Barbossa, now has a tendency to turn fleshless at night, ill met by moonlight, as it were.

The fights cap a tale that begins intriguingly enough, but sags badly as it slips into a disjoined imitation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Aztec gold rather than a sacred artifact as the ultimate prize. At the outset, little Elizabeth is sailing to Jamaica with her father, Weatherby Swann, newly appointed as governor and played with paternal courtliness by Jonathan Pryce. The little girl spots a boy, floating on a raft, and he is brought aboard. As a reward, Elizabeth appropriates a gold amulet, stamped with a skull.

Verbinski then cuts to the adult Elizabeth, now being groomed as the bride of the ramrod Commodore Norrington, the usual military Brit stiff as acted by Jack Davenport. But the boy from the raft, Bloom’s Turner, a duelist as well as a smithy, also adores the long-necked Swann daughter. Soon, to add to the avian population. Capt. Sparrow sails in, causing a commotion, followed by Barbossa and his accursed Pearl, a black ship to be sung of by Brecht’s Pirate Jenny. Two comic members of his raffish crew, Lee Arenberg’s Pintel and MacKenzie Crook’s Ragetti, snatch Elizabeth, believing her to be the daughter of a former pirate master with a secret. Amid many low sight gags involving Ragetti’s glass eye, this Pirates becomes a sea chase, with Sparrow and Will Turner joining forces in pursuit of Elizabeth.

The three male leads also cross sabers with slashing panache. But it is Depp, so low-key and bemused, who lifts this pictures’ head above water. Sporting a braided beard, gold teeth, and a battered leather tricorn, a rakish gleam in his eyes, he crowns a sometimes beautifully composed but hollow spectacle with a pirate king’s wit and whimsy.

LA Times\Washington Post