Back when I was a lad, “Pirates of the Caribbean” was about the only cool ride left at Disneyland when the E tickets were all gone or the line for Space Mountain stretched to some time next Tuesday. It was either “Pirates,” “Small World” or head for parking lot. If you had suggested back then that the ride would be made into movie and that movie would not only not be rated G, but the lead actor would also pattern his character after a member of the Rolling Stones, Walt himself probably would have risen from the grave to personally throw your hippie ass out of the park.
This is a movie that works so well on the level of pure eye candy that you never notice that story logic is the first thing thrown into the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker. It manages to hit the high points of the original ride and seamlessly weave its elements into the chaotic fabric of its story. We get the pirate attack on the fort, the sacking of the town and the imprisoned pirates trying to coax a dog to fetch the key to their cell and it all happens in the first forty-five minutes.
Summarizing the plot of this movie (or either of its sequels) is an exercise in futile insanity, so lets us instead just outline the dramtis personae. Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) is the daughter of the governor of Port Royal (Jonathan Pryce). She’s engaged (or at least likely to become engaged) to Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), a fast-rising British officer but secretly in love with a blacksmith named Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who she’s known since he was rescued from pirates when they were both children. It should be noted that Elizabeth harbors a rebellious streak that includes a socially unacceptable fascinations with all things pirate.
Speaking of pirates, Elizabeth’s wedding day is interrupted by a couple of events, including the arrival of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), an eccentric and somewhat destitute pirate who seems to be missing his ship. After his is arrested by Norrington’s men, however, the real trouble arrive, in the form of an attack by another pirate vessel, this one commanded by Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who kidnaps Elizabeth.
This is where it gets complicated, so you want to sit down for this. It appears that Barbossa’s ship, the Black Pearl, used to belong to Jack Sparrow, but first mate Barbossa and crew mutinied while chasing a cache of Inca gold stolen by Cortez. Unfortunately, the gold was cursed and the entire crew of the Pearl are now immortal undead creatures. It turns out that Will Turner is the son of one of their crew members and his blood is somehow necessary to break the curse. Of course, Will wants to rescue Elizabeth and Jack just wants his old ship back. Once he realizes who Will is, he is more than willing to sell out the blacksmith to Barbossa to get what he wants.
One thing that seemed to escape notice is that, despite having a great deal of screen time and being loved or hated by virtually every character in the film, the character of Jack Sparrow is never really a particular major player in a lot of what goes on through the three films of the series. He’s a colorful character created almost entirely out of Depp’s brilliantly twisted performance, but really doesn’t do much except represent a sort of perverse take on our own romantic view of Caribbean pirates. These movies are really the story of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, so it’s fortunate that they had Johnny Depp to take our mind off the fact that, in the first film at least, we are struck with a couple of fairly bland heroes.
Geoffrey Rush chews scenery like it was his last meal, giving us a meaty portrait of a more traditional pirate figure, sort of a zombified Long John Silver. He appears to having almost as much fun as Depp in his role. That’s primarily what the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie accomplishes, fulfilling its role in our collective lives as a big, expensive feast for our eyes and ears. Make no mistake, this is easily the best movie ever made based on a theme park ride.