As William Goldman said once: “No one knows anything.” How else do you explain Disney bucking three lousy movie trends—anything involving pirates, anything involving a Disneyland attraction, and almost anything produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (although one must give credit where credit’s due for “Remember the Titans,” “Black Hawk Down,” and a few others)—and releasing a film as widely acclaimed as “Pirates of the Caribbean”? Clearly this was a project where serendipity brought together three adverse trends, offset them with solid talent in all areas of the production, and produced a wonderful ride that reminded us what the studios are really shooting for when they budget their big “tent-pole” pictures.
“Pirates” tells the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a colorful brigand without a ship but in possession of plenty devilish tricks. A trickster by nature (co-screenwriter Ted Elliott points out in one of the commentaries that we don’t see enough tricksters in movies these days, and he’s right), Sparrow conspires to commandeer a ship belonging to the British Navy and set out to get back the Black Pearl, the vessel he once captained.
His plans go awry, of course, and as he proceeds to straighten them out, he meets Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), a governor’s daughter. Despite their initial intense dislike of him, they’re soon pulled into the adventure, with Swan doing a bit of her own pulling as her take-charge actions land her on the Black Pearl after it attacks her father’s town. (Ted Elliott also points out in one of the commentaries that she’s really the protagonist of the film. Who’s to argue with the co-screenwriter?)
The catch is that the Black Pearl is a cursed ship crewed by immortal pirates who reveal their true skeletal selves when they step into the moonlight. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is the first mate who led a mutiny against Sparrow and left him to die on an island many years before, and he’s looking for the last piece gold from a treasure that will lift the curse once it’s completely restored. Swan has that piece, but over the course of the story it switches hands more times than the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Anyone who’s been on the Disneyland ride once or twice will notice a few key moments lifted from it for the film, such as a few prisoners trying to entice a dog to give up the jailor’s key dangling from the ring in its mouth. While the ride didn’t have much of a story, co-screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio managed to flesh out the concept into a solid adventure full of twists and turns, set pieces that actually move the story along instead of simply existing to look cool, inventive escapes and double-crosses, and a well-thought-out cast that even includes intriguing supporting roles. (I should point out that when they took over the project, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert had already submitted several drafts between them. The commentary with all four screenwriters helps sort out who came up with which ideas.) Gore Verbinski’s capable direction keeps the tone consistent and the story moving along at just the right pace.
Some have called this one of the best DVD releases of the year. While it doesn’t have the same abundance of content that “The Two Towers: Extended Edition” and “Alien: Quadrilogy” sets have, it still has enough extras to satisfy ardent “Pirates” fans. Three commentaries—one with Verbinski and Depp; another with Bruckheimer, Knightley, and actor Jack Davenport; and a third with the four screenwriters—provide a wealth of information and minutiae. The “An Epic At Sea: The Making of Pirates of the Caribbean” documentary has a bit of an EPK feel to it, but it still delves into the subjects that are important with a film like this: the origins of the story, the fight sequences, and of course the special effects, which were another first-class job by ILM. (I’d say the only scene that doesn’t feel quite right is the one in which Elizabeth learns the secret of the Pearl’s crew; Knightley looks pasted in during that sequence.) Perhaps the HD-DVD era will bring us one of those great retrospective documentaries like the ones Laurent Bouzereau makes. Sometimes a good film needs a few years before those involved can look back wistfully and talk about the production in reverential tones.
If you enjoy watching behind-the-scenes footage of movies being made, you’ll appreciate the 20 minutes of “Fly on the Set” footage as well as the three video diaries, which offer even more on-the-set peeks, including fun moments with the cast and crew. And those of you who like outtakes and cut footage (I’d say it’s my second favorite feature after a great documentary) will want to watch the 18 minutes of cut scenes and 3 minutes of outtakes that are included, although the cut scenes are actually trims, not complete scenes.
The rest of the extra materials review the history of pirates, a “Pirates in the Park” excerpt from a 1968 episode of the old Disney TV show, in which Uncle Walt takes us behind the scenes of the ride, a before and after effects demo that shows how a single shot goes from raw footage to the finished product, complete with special effects, and six image galleries that cover everything from concept art to publicity materials. A bunch of DVD-ROM features include a script-to-storyboard comparison, an image gallery and a featurette that show us how the ride came to be, an effects studio that allows you to take a picture of yourself and see how you’d look as one of the Pearl’s cursed pirates, and a “virtual reality” tour of the new version of the ride, which has unfortunately been PC-ified.
It’s also unfortunate that the DVD-ROM features on this disc, like the ones on many other DVDs these days, don’t work on a Mac, and I have three such computers that sport DVD drives. My only Windows computer, a six-year-old relic, has only CD-ROM, so I can’t say if the DVD-ROM features are any good. That always bums me out.
I am happy, though, that a major studio got one of these tent-pole pictures right. Like many others, I look forward to the inevitable sequel, currently due for release in 2005. If you enjoyed it too, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to own this DVD. If you haven’t seen “Pirates of the Caribbean” yet, what are you waiting for?