Eventually, short stories and non-fiction articles provided foundation material for screenplays, later television shows and comic books. Now in Gore Verbinski's marathon-titled Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, we find seminal inspiration in an amusement-park ride. How soon will Hollywood decide to adapt a clever phone mail message? But before I wax too sarcastic, I should hasten to say that if the capable screenwriters who produced Pirates of the Caribbean get assigned to the phone mail, the project has a chance.
Written with verve and imagination by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Pirates of the Caribbean is a comedy/adventure that thrives on the wit of its script. The story itself is pure formula. Some unnamed time in the 18th century, in and around the British Caribbean holdings in "Port Royal," thrusted blade and rusted cannonball rule the briny deep. A chest of cursed Cortez gold has rendered a mutinous band of pirates into insatiable ghouls whose appetites for wine, women and food can never be slaked. Now mix in the carnal attraction of Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), daughter of the convention-bound provincial governor (Jonathan Pryce), and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith whose father was a mysterious buccaneer, and you have the class-busting ingredients of Hollywood convention. Will comely, virginal Elizabeth and callous-handed, but stout-hearted Will, eventually make starry-eyed whoopee? Is the queen fond of hats?
Two decades ago Peter O'Toole won an Oscar nomination for a performance in the comedy My Favorite Year widely assumed to be based on Errol Flynn, cinema action star of the 1930s and '40s and notorious bon vivant. Now in Pirates of the Caribbean, the always-fascinating Johnny Depp steps forth with a performance that suggests Flynn by way of O'Toole. Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate more by inclination than by immediate profession. Once upon a time, Jack commanded the Black Pearl, a brigand ship that presumably freed filthy lucre from the billfolds of the greedy and undeserving, all the while shedding not so much as a pinprick of innocent blood. Jack could use a good scrubbing, but he'd always rush, or at least traipse, to the aid of a maiden in peril. Unfortunately for Jack, his traitorous first mate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) staged a revolt among the Black Pearl's mariners and marooned the captain on a desert isle where he endured rather than expired. The various threads come together when Barbossa's fiends kidnap fair Elizabeth, forcing slightly daft Captain Jack and morally upright Will to join forces for her rescue, an exploit complicated by the obtuse and rigid interference of Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), who just happens to be Elizabeth's loveless intended. Sound complicated? Add in that Barbossa's entire crew is composed of the skeletal undead, an assortment of cutthroats so heinous they've been rejected at the gates of Hades.
Pirates of the Caribbean doesn't go a single place the viewer doesn't expect, from the ultimate comeuppance of the villain to the kiss of the star-destined lovers. But along the way, this picture delivers as much fun as one can ever yearn for in a summer popcorn-muncher. One can almost taste the fun the performers had in making this piece of fluff. The gifted Geoffrey Rush plays the dastard Barbossa with lip-smacking relish. He's the perfect anti-hero for a piece aimed at Disney's younger audiences, one obviously reminiscent of the prototype Captain Hook himself, a rogue with watered-down blood on his hands, ripe for hissing but lacking any of the kind of penetrating menace that could send a bonny lad or lass home with nightmares. In short, despite the sight of skeletons wielding swords and bosom-heaving damsels in ever-so-many episodes of distress, Pirates of the Caribbean hasn't a single moment that's genuinely scary.
In the end, let us praise screenwriters who can reinvigorate an old and tired entertainment formula. This picture never threatens to be taken seriously, but it often pauses to be genuinely funny. Rush obviously relishes the release of this kind of low-brow cotton candy. He inhabits Barbossa the way a high school acting teacher might cherish a role as the mustache-twirling top-hatted cur in a farcical melodrama. Meanwhile, Depp's inevitably eccentric impulses strike pure performance gold. Little makes sense in either Jack's character or the whole of the narrative in which he appears. But damned if Depp doesn't cast a spell over the whole enterprise. The affectionate weirdness with which he presents Jack is worth the price of admission all by itself.