Review by Garnet Brooks
"Pirates of the Caribbean" is one of those blockbuster films that manages to please everyone. These are quite rare. The cast features Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley. Its director is Gore Verbinski and its producer is Jerry Bruckheimer.
If one thinks about this film as key words or phrases it seems as if it would be trite or old hat. For example, it is about a plucky heroine and her handsome knight. They encounter a scabrous pirate, his even more scabrous enemy, and assorted crewmen some of whom possess monkeys and parrots. The film revolves around cursed Aztec gold and an equally cursed ghost ship. The plucky heroine is separated from her protector and washed ashore with the main scabrous pirate, marooned and left to die on a Caribbean island. Rum is had. There is an oath of vengeance and only blood can cleanse it. Throw in a couple of pompous Englishmen in powdered wigs, a contingency of red-coated military men and a swell sea battle and there you have it. In spite of this, the film manages to be fresh and engaging. It is also funny. Johnny Depp's performance is actually a caricature but it is such a novel and complex one that it winds up being an astounding performance. And, not the only one. All the star cast are good in their roles but also there are a number of great character actors who give realism to the admittedly fantasy picture.
Another way in which the film has a sense of realism is in the detail of its period costumes and props. The costumes are lovely when they should be and the pirates are as bedraggled as they ought to be. The swordplay is good. Douglas Fairbanks could not have done better when it comes to general swashbuckling but these sword fights have that choreographed realistic look. The ships are magnificent and apparently reproduced in very exacting detail. The sea itself is an uncredited character in this epic as one supposes the sea really is to naval men.
Some of the scenes have a mythic and evocative quality. Often the sea is shot in either fog, moonlight or storm. Part of the last third of the film is shot in and around a grotto. They paddle in the cave like opening into a hidden space filled with loot and mystery. It has a fairy tale quality and evokes the wonder that a ten year old might feel on reading Treasure Island for the first time. The special effects in the scenes where the moon reveals the ghoulish nature of the pirates is splendid. Ghouls and booty, they somehow belong in such a film.
The ghost ship is called the "Black Pearl" which is apparently the name of the Disney theme attraction. But this "Black Pearl" is genuinely menacing with its tattered black sails and its skull and crossbones. It is Depp's character's ship. This Captain Jack Sparrow may be a wicked fellow but he loves his ship and wants nothing more than to get it back from the infinitely more wicked man who incited the crew to mutiny and sail it away. Ordinarily telling too much plot spoils the viewer's appreciation of the film but in this case it does not really matter if you know the story. The enjoyment is in the novelty of the telling.
This already classic film is well worth buying on DVD. My two disc edition has quite a lot of extra features. The auditory commentaries alone feature nine different people. It has enhanced features for the computer with nice storyboards. It has several documentaries including information about shipbuilding and historical contexts. There are deleted and alternative scenes and a blooper reel. There is a section that shows how the "moonlight" effect was made that turns the pirates from flesh and blood to skeletons. It is clear from the documentary just how much work and crafting went into making the scenes real. There is a video game like simulation that takes you through the different parts of ship and interviews with historians which help you understand the context of the film. There are more bells and whistles here than you can absorb in one sitting.