[box cover]

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: Special Edition

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom,
and Geoffrey Rush

Written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie,
and Jay Wolpert

Directed by Gore Verbinski

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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:

*          *          *

"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:

— Dawn Taylor

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