Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (Disney Studios, 2003) sailed in on a summer breeze and astonished everyone, a lightweight popcorn epic based on an amusement park ride. But let’s be honest, the Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t just an amusement park ride. It’s the amusement park ride, the dark ride of dark rides, an immersive world of flickering lights and imagined peril in the shadows, a tribute to rum, mayhem and anarchy in, of all places, the Magic Kingdom.
Several other factors gave Curse of the Black Pearl wings. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was brilliant, an instant cultural archetype, the Pirate Trickster without peer. Geoff Rush as Captain Barbossa brought depth and witty dimension to what might have been a thankless role. Killer special effects and a cheerfully literate script overcame any weaknesses in the plot — primarily the ending: Elizabeth and Will help a condemned criminal escape and the British legal system winks at it because, awww, they’re young and in love? Come on!
Another summer came and brought us the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest (Disney Studios, 2006). It was deeper, it was darker, it was richer, it dealt with the above-mentioned plot weakness in a brutally realistic way. Critics were frantic in their haste to piss all over it, but I thought it was a much better film. Bill Nighy’s motion-capture performance as Davy Jones, a ranting judgmental demon of the deep looking like the love child of Cthulu and Captain Ahab, came close to stealing the show. Elizabeth and Will, to say nothing of poor Commodore Norrington, developed unexpected strengths. Maybe the Kraken was trotted out once too often, but Captain Jack got the all-time Most Heroic Exit in a Pirate Movie.
And now, At World’s End.
Is it confusing? Not if you’re paying attention. Is it disappointing? In a couple of places, maybe, slightly — I was sorry Commodore Norrington got so little screen time, after his interesting character development in the second film, and Davy Jones is revealed to have become a supernatural fiend out of fairly petty human disappointment. I was expecting something more, I don’t know, biblical. Sao Feng is onscreen too briefly.
That being said — I loved it. It’s far more surreal than the other two films (and in a filmic universe of skeleton pirates and voodoo priestesses, that’s saying something). There’s the brilliantly lit nightmare of Davy Jones’ Locker, in which Captain Jack hallucinates. There’s the procession of drowned souls under the water. There’s the roaring abyss of World’s End, and the noises in the darkness that follow it. There’s the wedding in the midst of a ship-to-ship gun battle in the midst of a howling storm over a maelstrom. No kidding. There’s the towering shipwreck fortress in which the pirate captains meet. Best of all, there’s Keith Richard’s appearance as Captain Teague Sparrow. I was expecting a brief pop-culture cameo here, and was pleasantly surprised — Richards comes across with dignity. His Captain Teague is profoundly old, evil and wise, with a voice like oozing tar and a thousand-mile stare.
At World’s End is exhilarating too. The scene in which the pirate fleet hoists its colors had me cheering, the way the beacon-lighting scene in The Lord of the Rings thrilled legions of hobbit fanciers. Comic sidekick Ragetti has a surprisingly tender moment in the spotlight and I was pleased to see the redoubtable Mrs. Cheng getting some film time at last. Forget those hapless wenches Bonney and Reed, forget Grace O’Malley: Mrs. Cheng was the pirate queen of them all. Lord Cutler Beckett, smirking corporate Satan, is dispensed with in a satisfying if slightly unbelievable manner, and what happens to his thoroughly vile henchman Mercer will have you cheering for Davy Jones.
With all this popcorn delight, sobering themes anchor At World’s End in human pain. Elizabeth Swann attempting to hold a conversation with Bill Turner, who is going slowly mad aboard the Flying Dutchman, will wring the heart of anyone who has ever watched a parent fading into senility. She must face another moment of helplessness and grief, too, even more profound and final. Johnny Depp lets us see the terror always in Captain Jack’s eyes, the desperation under the wiliness. And no thinking American will be able to watch the opening moments without unease, as all those constitutional rights are taken away by special executive order of the East India Trading Company, and citizens march in lockstep to the gallows.
The closing moments, however, are suitably mythic and satisfying. There is renewal; there is redemption. Captain Jack sails into the sunset in the way you always knew he would, deep down. The story comes full circle in a way you won’t appreciate unless you stay through the credits. Stay. It’s worth it.
So… isn’t all this pirate business a little silly? Oh, please! Like furry-toed hobbits and elves with five o’clock shadow aren’t silly? Like Monster Truck Rallies and Uma Thurman slicing up perfect strangers aren’t silly? Like anime isn’t unbelievably silly? Like rock stars aren’t silly, for God’s sake?
Do I tell you what to do with your Saturday afternoons?
Haaaaar. Pass the rum
(Disney Studios, 2007)