What is it about the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy that causes so much critical consternation? In some corners, the films are viewed in the proper perspective - wildly entertaining blockbusters that push the limits of spectacle and scope. In other, more perplexing views, they are unsatisfactory stink bombs, poster children for studio excess, superstar hubris, and clueless directorial overindulgence. No matter that the movies have made scads of dough - this is just the lemming like reaction to clever marketing and a manic mob mentality. Dollars do not equal aesthetics. Yet the questioning of their popularity remains. It couldn’t possible have anything to do with the films actually being good - or dare it be said, great.
But indeed they are great. With the arrival on DVD of the third (and for now, final) installment in the series, it’s interesting to look back and see where the franchise originated, and how it came to transcend the House of Mouse’s misguided merchandising scheme. It all started with the atrocious Country Bears. Disney, desperate to trade on any element of its legacy it could, decided that the next great source of motion picture magic was its well known theme park attractions. With their profile and popularity, even a lousy big screen translation was bound to generate some much needed revenue. Sadly, two of the three proposed projects were incredibly lame. After Bears’ baffling combination of live action and actors in clumsy costumes, and Eddie Murphy’s inadvertent homage to Mantan Moreland, The Haunted Mansion, no one could envision the next installment salvaging the strategy.
It had an unproven cast. The director was, at the time, best known for his commercial kiddie film Mousehunt and the hit horror film The Ring. And then there was the subject - the cinematic scourge known as pirates. The last time anyone attempted to resurrect the buccaneer, auteur Roman Polanski was helming the biggest bomb of his career. Disney apparently didn’t learn the lessons from that undeniable disaster. Yet they weren’t the first to revisit the scallywag storyline. In fact, Renny Harlin also ruined his vocational options - and his marriage - with the Geena Davis clunker Cutthroat Island. Still, Uncle Walt’s cronies persevered, They placed idiosyncratic actor Johnny Depp in the lead, surrounded him with dozens of known British talents, and took the entire company to the Virgin Islands. There, on a fully refurbished boat, the same old peg legged clichés were measured out, circling a story about ancient superstitions laced with post-modern irony.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the result, and for many, it remains the best movie of the entire trilogy. Since it started life as a single entity, not the foundation for an actual franchise, the completeness of the narrative is hard to overlook. Depp’s brilliant turn as Captain Jack Sparrow started an outright cult, and when viewed in retrospect, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role. Still, it was a risk for producer Jerry Bruckheimer to hire the star. He was mostly known for his unusual choices in roles, not for bringing audiences through the turnstiles. Still, Depp’s dandified dance with the material made Curse of the Black Pearl commercial, and indicated the need for another installment in the series.
There are other elements worth noting in the first film, facets that reinforce its claim to classicism. The entire subplot involving Barboosa and his undead crew brought new life to an old genre, and Verbinski’s visual flair found untold tricks within the tired material. When one sees the shot of skeletal bandits crossing the ocean floor on foot, the novelty of such a sequence reinvigorates a dormant fantasy fan’s aching aesthetic. Indeed, everything about Curse of the Black Pearl was built on the old school designs of the original popcorn movie mavens. It’s Jaws jammed into Star Wars, with just a sprinkling of CGI spice on top.
The second installment, subtitled Dead Man’s Chest, tried to trump the evocative nature of the first film, and for the most part, it succeeded. Created simultaneously with the third episode (At World’s End), it marked a decision by Disney to go the bigger, badder, and broader route with the series. Everything here is larger than life - the swordfights (actors Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport have an actual standoff on top of a rotating mill wheel - as it travels through a jungle thicket. Really.), the situations, and the fatal consequences for all involved. Verbinski shows his true skills here, producing action that rivals the work of his obvious heroes (Spielberg and Lucas). Yet he also handles the smaller moments with grace and gravitas.
The masterstrokes of using Davy Jones, his ocean life encrusted crew, the haunted Flying Dutchman, and the mysterious allure of the sea may have mimicked the original’s villainous monster’s format, but the director tried to turn the combination of acting and artful effects into something almost tragic. Thanks to Bill Nighy’s marvelous performance as Jones, as well as the numerous storyline sidesteps the film provided (the ship-killing Kraken was also amazing in 35mm), made the movie one of 2006’s finest. It also mandated a finalizing piece, a movie that would make everything that came before seem small and insignificant. At World’s End became that necessary knock out blow.
Unlike the other Pirates films, At World’s End feels the most segmented. It has to deal with so many issues, so many characters, and so many arc endings, that it can’t help but appear partitioned. But when the pieces add up to something this satisfying, the knotty narrative devices speak for themselves. Sure, Keira Knightley is a tad shrewish, and Chow-Yun Fat is fine for what is mostly a cameo clip, but who cares. The epic battle in the middle of revived goddess Calypso’s maelstrom stands as one of the most amazing works of visual wizardry ever captured on film. Even better, Verbinski constantly keeps his creativity front and center. Why have a last stand showdown between Captain Sparrow and Jones on the deck of the ship when the same fight along the top rail of the Dutchman’s main mast would do nicely. Why simply repeat the same crustacean crew from Part 2? Why not add in a few new seafood scumbags into the mix?
There’s also a real emotional center this time around. Since we believe this will be the last time we ever see the Pirates crew, we lament the loss of favored personalities, and relish the destruction of the antagonists. When our heroes are in harms way, we fear for their safety, and we understand the doomed dynamic facing some of our most treasured icons. In fact, when the storm has cleared and the dead are left to travel to the underworld, At World’s End seems to stutter, if just by the smallest bit. Instead of ending on a note of defiance or depth, we get cute callbacks that tend to indicate a studio-mandated desire for future installments. If the high standards of the first three films are maintained, it’s hard to envision Disney stopping here.
Still, some will complain at length about these otherwise excellent films - and it could be a literal matter of viewpoint. No matter the set up, no matter the expensive technical traits, these films really weren’t meant for DVD. Their scale is so seismic, so completely off the cinematic charts that to try and rein them in via a home theater package is nothing short of a fool’s paradise. Trying to appreciate the slow motion descent of Lord Beckett in the middle of his ship’s destruction, or the amazing moment when we follow the Flying Dutchman down into the murky depths from a distinct POV on such a limited scale could affect anyone’s judgment. Then again, some people just hate these masterful movies for no discernible reasons but their own. It’s their opinion and their entitled to it. Time will probably alter their otherwise informed judgment.
Indeed, one can easily see the Pirates of the Caribbean films become the seafaring Star Wars for an entire generation. Like Lucas’ beloved space opera, these outsized extravaganzas with their mixture of comedy, mythos and stunt spectacle could function as the inspiration for a thousand messagaboard debates, and an entire online legacy. Thanks to the Internet, one could envision this happening sooner than later. Indeed, for some, it’s already begun. The Depp contingent have become obsessive, seeking out any and all information they can about their fated star, and minor characters like Marty and the ditzy duo of Ragetti and Pintel have their own honored corp. It’s clear that these movies have made an impact that transcends their viability as populist motion pictures. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise stands as stellar cinema. It should be celebrated as such.