Thursday, May 19, 2011

Let's Review a Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Well this film is certainly an interesting one for me. This really was a movie I thought was doomed right out of the gate. A feature film based off a theme park ride, an awesome theme park ride; my personal favourite in fact, but a theme park ride? They are totally scraping the bottom of the creativity barrel. I went to see this thing fully prepared to laugh at every horrible moment I was sure was going to fill the silver screen; and to my immense surprise what I got instead was a movie that kicks the undead’s butt.

Everything about this film starts off right, right from going Star Wars on the credits and only having the title of the movie. We get a nice reference to the ride that also starts setting the tone of the film, with the young Elizabeth singing the song in an ‘unnatural fog’. The visual of the Black Pearl is suitably creepy and we also get good introductions all around for Elizabeth and her interest in piracy and for the Elizabeth and Will relationship. A fun bit with Mr. Gibbs and Norrington gets to be a competent sailor.

This is a very layered film and thus lends itself nicely to re-watching. Things that might have been missed or confusing the first time become clearer the more times the film is viewed. I find this to be especially true with the character of Norrington in his next scene. When I first watched the scene where he proposes to Elizabeth on the top of the fort I thought he stood away from her and looked away from her because he wasn’t really interested in her as a person, but only wanted to marry her because they were a smart match. It’s only later that I’ve come to see that Norrington is standing and looking away like that because he’s nervous. He really likes Elizabeth just like Will does, the tragedy for Norrington is that Elizabeth actually likes Will back. The point is still made though: Norrington is a good guy and the guy we would normally root for in a picture like this. In fact Norrington gets one of my favourite lines in the movie right after Jack rescues Elizabeth, risking death, just because it’s the right thing to do.

“And I half expected it to be made of wood.” Hah! Norrington is a snarky badass and I love him for it. What also makes this scene, the movie as a whole really, work is that Norrington is smart. He keeps the pirate secured, until Elizabeth moves, so Jack has to out manoeuvre him, rather than just being handed his escape via plot contrivance. No one has to act like an idiot in order for this plot to work, but instead they constantly build on one another, upping the stakes and making for a very enjoyable film. This is very well illustrated in the first sword fight scene. Where, initially, Jack seems to have the upper hand as a pirate, until Will shows off his own skills. Then Jack gets Will away from the door only to have Will block the door with his sword, but this leaves Will with no weapon until he grabs the hot poker. The scene keeps building and building until Jack’s cheating ends the engagement. Not only is this layered plot well executed, but the characters are layered too.

This well-layered characterisation is best shown with the villain, the one and only, Hector Barbossa. He is a lovely contradiction of pirate tropes and under lining gentleman quality to him. He pretends not to understand Elizabeth when she wants to negotiate, only to turn right around with his own long-winded phrase a moment later. His laughs and 'Arrs!'  are over the top, but he also can be very soft-spoken, like when he describes the curse to Elizabeth during dinner. His motivations are interesting too because, for him, it's not about being some random bad guy, it's about having freedom. During the ceremony when Elizabeth is so convinced she is going to die and he just cuts her hand and says, “waste not.” He could kill her and doesn’t because he doesn’t need to. His entire motivation is that he just wants to eat apples again. Even his crew just wants to live again. All the loot they have stolen over the last eleven years has been stored in the cave. It’s all just sitting there waiting until the curse is lifted because that is all they really want. In a way Jack and Barbossa are two sides of the same coin.

Now this depth of character comes from the theme of the film asking, what makes a good man? And I love the grey morality this film deals with in looking at that question. Where by the law someone like Jack Sparrow is a pirate and an unlawful man in all respects, but he is also a good man. This is shown in great contrast in the battle between the Pearl and the Interceptor. Jack wants to go over and negotiate for the medallion, avoiding collateral damage. Leading to this lovely exchange:

Jack: What say we run up a flag of truce, I scurry over to the Interceptor and negotiate the return of your medallion hmm? What say you to that?

Barbossa: No, you see, Jack, that be exactly the attitude that lost you the Pearl. People are easier to search when they’re dead.

Barbossa doesn’t care about collateral damage at the moment he just wants the medallion back and if anybody gets in the way of that goal that’s their fault.

The battle that this conversation leads up to is my second favourite part of the film. Everyone gets a chance to shine here. Ana-Maria steers the ship; Gibbs gives the orders. Elizabeth and Will give suggestions, and Barbossa counters those suggestions just as quickly. Again it’s great way to build tension because each thing is building on top of one another and the audience is left wondering which side will win, because, again, each side gets to be smart.

Also while this franchise has had a lot of good actions scenes with ships over the years, my personal favourite is still this battle because, as Redlettermedia points out so often in his reviews, it feels real, because for the most part it is real. There are real boats, on real water, with real actors. By the time we get to third film we have real actors, on half a ship in a studio lot projected against a blue screen. It’s good, but it’s not as good to me.

I do like the computer effects on Barbossa’s crew though as it’s used to show their situation and to make them more menacing; and it helps that the CGI effects are surrounded by practical effects. For example the pyro effects of the attack on Port Royal and the use of miniature models in blowing up the Interceptor. I find this helps to ground the film in reality because those effects contain something tangible and the brain accepts that. And so the audience doesn’t become desensitized to the effects, and thus the action, because the thought running through their heads is ‘it’s a computer effect it’s not a real threat’.

Now that I’ve rambled on about effects and my second favourite scene let’s get to my favourite one, the ending. I love seeing Jack’s plan come together and his fight and win over Barbossa. Again it’s a lovely contradiction of Jack being smart and good with a sword, combined with Jack running around saying “sorry” as he passes Will’s fight with the other pirates I love it. The music swells to perfection, again we get good use of the effects when it’s revealed that Jack is now under the curse, along with him and Barbossa moving in and out of the moon beams. And just to compound the awesome factor Elizabeth continues to be competent and interesting.

Then after that we get a wrap up of theme as Jack proves he is a good man, while still being funny even in front of the hangman’s noose. Norrington gets to maintain his awesome guy status while giving up the girl he loves, and then Will and Elizabeth get together, and Jack is off to have more adventures over the horizon.

In closing, this film took what could have been a marketing gimmick to sell theme park tickets and turned it into something amazing. The music is epic, the characters are full formed, likable, and interesting. The effects have their place, but don’t overwhelm the film. The visuals are gorgeous, and the story is creative, tight, and well paced. This film in a nutshell is all the reasons I go to the movies.

Unfortunately, because this was a mega-blockbuster they couldn’t leave well enough alone.

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