Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: Special Edition
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom,
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Review by Dawn Taylor
It started life as a Disneyland ride, was turned into a movie by the producer of Con Air, Armageddon, and Coyote Ugly, directed by Gore Verbinski (the man who helmed Mouse Hunt), and it starred Johnny Depp as a pirate. There were so very many ways that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) could have gone wildly, disastrously wrong.
And yet, it's good. Better than good it's one the best genre-action pictures made in a couple of decades, bringing back some of the excitement audiences used to feel when first seeing those loving homages to classic matinee fodder, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite all odds, Pirates is an exuberant, near-perfect adventure epic full of swashbuckle-y goodness, and Depp's performance alone makes it worth seeing again and again.
The canny plot of Pirates takes the classic damsel-in-distress trope and skews it just enough to make it palatable for a modern audience without looking like a feminist reworking. Despite being hijacked by a shipload of cursed scalawags, Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) the lovely young daughter of Port Royal's Governor (Jonathan Pryce) can handle herself nicely, thankyewverymuch. Something of a pirate buff, she demands that her kidnappers honor the code of "parley," which stipulates that no harm can come to an adversary who's invoked the rule until their request is completed. Her request is to see the Black Pearl's captain, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) so that she may demand that they stop attacking the port. Barbossa smarmily agrees, but then sets sail with Elizabeth still on the ship, which she furiously insists is a violation of the Pirate Code. Barbossa sets the standard for pirate behavior in his detailed response to her outrage: "First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement, so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply, and you are not. And thirdly the code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."
It is, in fact, Elizabeth's rescuer and potential True Love, Will (Orlando Bloom), who ultimately ends up needing the rescuing. Despite his hatred of pirates, the young blacksmith initially throws in his lot with Capt. Jack Sparrow (Depp) in order to pursue the pirates who've absconded with the girl. But it turns out that Will's the one they really want and Elizabeth finds herself first stranded on a desert isle and then, later, fighting side-by-side with Sparrow to save Will. It's a very refreshing spin on the classic Hero/Sidekick/Endangered Dame triangle. In fact, one reason that Pirates is so successful is in the way it mixes up the traditional, one-dimensional roles the feisty damsel rescues the hero, who's really the boy sidekick to the dashing pirate, who's sexy, dynamic and the comic relief. The film is so watchable precisely because along with the dead-on art direction and sparkling dialogue the characters are far more than the same predictable cardboard cutouts that we've come to expect from action-adventure fare.
Of course, there's also that performance by Johnny Depp. It's sort of ridiculous to still be surprised by Depp after all these years, but it seems as if with every role he plays even the boring ones, in bad films like Nick of Time and The Astronaut's Wife audiences rediscover just how good he is. Depp's been both acknowledged as one of the finest American actors alive and as an under-appreciated, yet-to-break-out talent for over a decade. And yet every moment that he brings to Pirates is a marvel. Swaying almost drunkenly, as if his years on the water have given him permanent sea-legs, Sparrow is a ruthless pirate, an ethical man with questionable morals, and possibly a little brain-damaged. Based (he says) on Keith Richards, Depp created everything about the character himself, from his gypsy hairdo and kohl-smeared eyes to much of his hilariously strange dialogue. It's a daring high-wire act, a balance of funny/smart/dashing/silly/weird/cunning characteristics, switching between them from moment to moment. Watching Pirates, it's hard not to marvel at Depp's ability to share scenes with other actors without overpowering them he manages to have palpable chemistry with every single one of his co-stars, playing off and around them brilliantly, but never upstaging them.
Despite a couple of fight sequences that go on just a tad too long, Curse of the Black Pearl is a dazzling and satisfying spectacle, with every dollar of its budget visible up on the screen there's sea battles, sword fights, treasure caves, skeleton pirates, magic curses, comedy, drama, and romance. How it managed to end up so good is a mystery and we'll all have to keep our fingers crossed regarding the inevitable sequel, set for release in 2005 but films like this are as rare as pirate gold, and more than worthy of a space in one's permanent collection.
* * *
Buena Vista's DVD release of Curse of the Black Pearl offers a pristine, beautifully rich anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). The video is sharp throughout, with details in even the darkest scenes coming through nicely. The audio, available in either DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 (in English or French) is very good, with the lower registers getting a workout from Klaus Badelt's bass-heavy score and the booming cannons.
Disc One offers the film with three different commentary tracks. The first and best features director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp discussing the development of the project, sharing anecdotes about things that happened on the set and offering the usual "the whole cast was great, it was a marvelous experience" patter for the most part it's genuinely informative, and the bits about how Depp fleshed out his character are fascinating. The second track features either Bruckheimer or Knightley and actor Jack Davenport (Norrington) offering commentary over selected scenes. Bruckheimer's comments are detailed and interesting, focusing on bread-and-butter technical matters, while Knightley and Davenport are mainly having a good time together their bits are funny and charming, if not tech-heavy. The third track, with writers Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolpert, will be of the most interest to writers and others who want to know how characters are developed and what sorts of changes go one through the various drafts of a screenplay.
Disc Two offers a wealth of extras, including:
- An Epic at Sea, a 38-minute "making-of" featurette with a lot of information on most aspects of the film's production, complete with cast/crew interviews and a lot of behind-the-scenes footage.
- The five Fly on the Set featurettes are no-frills, straightforward behind-the-scenes footage showing the making of some of the movie's key scenes. They're very short and offer a good look at what happens on a movie set.
- Three video diaries are featured, each very different from the others. Bruckheimer shows off some of his photos taken on set, actor Lee Arenberg (Pintel) takes a video camera on-set for behind-the-scenes footage, and there's one on the real-life ship the Lady Washington, which stood in for the Dauntless, and the role it played in the film.
- Below Deck offers an "interactive history of pirates," with lots of info on the history and rules of piracy, how battles were waged, a biography of Blackbeard, and more.
- There's the obligatory Blooper reel of botched lines and wacky hijinks. Not really all that funny, but cute.
- A treasure trove of 19 deleted scenes mostly extended versions of existing scenes provide a nice look at how the movie was trimmed for time and other reasons. We see Jack Sparrow removing the curse from himself (after thinking for a moment about how interesting immorality might be), a warmer send-off from the Commodore at film's end, and a very funny improvised scene between Jack and the Pearl crew. More interesting, though, are several moments that were cut between Jack and Elizabeth perhaps they were merely cut for expediency, but they may have been excised because the focus on their relationship may have taken away from the romance between Elizabeth and Will.
- The "Moonlight Serenade" scene progression shows the journey from storyboard to final sequence of the film's big "scary pirates in the moonlight" scene.
- An image gallery offers up stills, storyboards and poster art.
- Pirates in the Parks accesses two fun submenus one offers an excerpt from a 1968 episode of "Disney's Wonderful World of Color," with Walt himself taking the audience behind the scenes of the creation of the park ride, followed by a ride-through of the entire attraction. The other is for DVD-ROM content, including a history of the ride, a still gallery, a "virtual reality" interactive tour through the attraction, and a cool feature that allows you to turn your own, uploaded photo into a cursed pirate. Sort of.
* * *
"The Lost Disc"
The Pirates "Three-Disc Gift Set" is actually a repackaging, released a full year after the film hit theaters, of the film's already quite fine two-disc DVD release. The addition is a new, separate "Lost Disc" containing nine bonus features, eight of them brand new. On the one hand, it makes financial sense (i.e., it's cheaper) for Buena Vista to eschew the usual all-new-disc double dip technique, forgoing the repackaging of all of the old material together with the new in a "extra special swashbuckle-y collector's edition" especially when the first release was so impressive. On the other hand, though, this feels like a toss-off packaged in a cheap cardboard cover that won't stay closed, the addendum was produced on its own, after the fact, and shrink-wrapped onto a card with pre-packaged Pirates DVDs. Not only is it rather cheesy-looking, fans will have to buy another copy of the same two-disc set they already own just to get it.
Whether it's worth it will be up to the individual fan the eight extras are a lot of fun, but altogether comprise just a tad over an hour of material:
- "Becoming Captain Jack" (7 min.) is an interesting look at Johnny Depp's creation of Jack Sparrow, discussing his influences (Keith Richards meets Pepe Le Pew) and offering sound bites from his co-workers on how swell he is.
- "Becoming Barbossa" (5 min.) is much the same, with Geoffrey Rush deconstructing the background of his character.
- "Thar She Blows!" (6 min.) offers a really interesting look at the building and blowing up of the large-scale model of the Interceptor. It's a fascinating look at the fanatical attention to detail in the film and the dedication of the folks behind the scenes.
- "More Fly on the Set" continues the behind-the-scenes video glimpses offered in the original DVD set, showing the preparation and shooting of three scenes.
- "The Monkey's Name is Jack" (4 min.) is a cute featurette on monkeys Tara and Levi, who played Barbossa's pet. The amount of effort needed to wrangle animals on this level is impressive that Rush was charged with acting as if he had a relationship with animals who were taking off-screen instructions (and with whom he'd been advised not to make eye contact for fear of confusing the monkeys as to who they should listen to) even more so.
- The "Sneak Attack Animatic" (4 min.) will please CGI buffs, offering a computer-generated sort of storyboard using limited animation, illustrating how the underwater-walk sequence would play when it was fully realized.
- "Pirates Around the World" (4 min.) is for those of you who get a kick out of watching American films dubbed into other languages. Two scenes start off in English and then gets the overdub treatment in nine different languages. It's mildly amusing, and blessedly short.
- "Spirit of the Ride" (7 min.) is a nice overview of the ways in which elements of the Disneyland ride were used in the film and how the ride's overall theme drove the production of the script. There's glimpses of some of the visual references that ended up on the cutting room floor, too.
- "Dead Men Tell No Tales" (13 min.) is a terrific featurette on the Disney attraction that was offered in the first release as a DVD-ROM feature. A combination of new interviews and vintage footage, it's a fascinating history of the ride.
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- Two single-sided, single-layered discs
- Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, French), DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
- French subtitles, English for the Hearing Impaired
- Commentary track with director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp
- Commentary track with Jerry Bruckheimer, Keira Knightley and Jack Davenport
- Commentary track with writers Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert
- An Epic at Sea making-of featurette
- Fly on the Set behind-the-scenes featurettes
- "Below Deck" interactive history of pirates
- Blooper reel
- Deleted scenes
- "Moonlight Serenade" scene progression
- Image gallery
- Excerpt from 1968 "Disney's Wonderful World of Color"
- DVD-ROM content
- Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard slipcover
- "Special Edition" includes "The Lost Disc" with additional features
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