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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007

ImageBlu-ray hasn’t been around very long, but long enough for the process to already have undergone changes great enough that some early players simply cannot handle some of the features of various discs. In this case, to coincide with the release of the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” epic, Disney released the first two in extras-laden, two-disc sets. At hand is “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the first movie. No one expected a great deal more than a fun movie based on the Disneyland ride, but it unexpectedly turned out to be a treasure trove of eccentric performances, gorgeous location work, superb production design—all adding up to a surprisingly entertaining and intelligent movie.

This Blu-Ray DVD has almost too many extras. The second disc includes about 12 hours of them in two primary sections: “An Epic at Sea” consists of a long roster of relatively brief documentaries which feature virtually all of the main cast and principal behind-the-scenes workers. “Becoming Captain Jack” is a clear demonstration of Depp’s strange—and Oscar-nominated—performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. In “Becoming Barbossa,” Geoffrey Rush talks about his approach to the character; Rush is close behind Depp as an eye-catching, nearly-but-not-quite over-the-top scene-grabber, and it’s interesting to see him as just a regular person. (Depp, on or off screen, is NOT a regular person.) “Thar She Blows! From Construction to Destruction” is a piece on the destruction (for the movie) of an elaborate model ship, featuring miniature builders Charlie and Peter Bailey, as well as effects supervisor John Knoll. He’s been on the teams of many major effects films, and deserves to be as well known as effects experts like John Dykstra.

In “The Monkey’s Name Is Jack,” animal wrangler Ursula Brauner tells a fascinating tale of how she got Barbossa’s monkey to do its many tricks. “Sneak Attack” features a pre-visualization (an early CGI version of a major effects sequence, very common these days) of the attack on the British ship by skeletal pirates who walk the sea bottom and clamber aboard the ship. “Pirates Around the World” shows how the movie sounds when dubbed into a variety of languages, including Canadian French, Castilian and Russian. In “Spirit of the Ride,” writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, as well as Johnny Depp, Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and John Knoll talk about how they manifested the park ride in the movie. There is also a group of deleted scenes. In “Dead Men Tell No Tails,” others on the “Pirates” team are heard from, including Bruce Gordon (project director), Marty Sklar, Alice Davis and others. They talk about the creation of the ride at Disneyland. There are even more documentaries in the “Epic at Sea” section, including featurettes on the actors, the location, the production design, the ships, costumes and makeup, stunts and swords (feature swordmaster Bob Anderson), visual effects, and scenes shot at the premiere at Disneyland.

“Fly on the Set” is a collection of behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the movie, showing the setups for and payoffs for several different sequences, each dated, each give its day of production (40th day of production, for example). This is useful because it demonstrates clearly that for observers not actually involved in what’s going on, movie sets can be rather boring places to visit.

The primary disc includes more extras. If you choose “Scoundrels of the Deep,” you see the entire movie (again, perhaps) with historical notes popping up occasionally. Those marked with gold coins sometimes conjure up a longer comment, announced to you by the scarf-wearing, talking skull that’s a major feature throughout both discs. There are three commentary tracks, one by Verbinski and Depp; it’s moderately interesting, and they sound like people it would be pleasant to talk with. I was not able to access the other commentary tracks; one includes Keira Knightley, another at least one of the writers.

But of course the main feature is the main feature: “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” itself. It’s interesting to return to this after seeing the two sequels, as many elements are established that recur and/or pay off in the later films. Someone even mentions Davy Jones and his locker. But of course, when this movie was made, no one was planning on sequels, so there’s very much a sense of everything being rounded off, finished, concluded. Elliott and Rossio have told interviewers they scoured older pirate movies for ideas (“The Crimson Pirate,” for example), and tried to use them all. Then, whoops, they were told to do it twice more.

This first “Pirates” movie remains the best. There’s a freshness to the conception and a richness of detail that becomes a bit smudged in the sequels. The first shot of Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) presents him as a dashing hero; the second (bailing out his small skiff) brings him down a lot. Soon after arriving at Port Royal, a British stronghold, he’s confronted by newly-minted commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) with “you’re the worst pirate I ever heard of.” Never-say-die Jack responds, “But you HAVE heard of me….” This sets the tone for his surprising, imaginative and entertaining conception; he claimed he made Jack a combination of Keith Richards (who turns up in the third film) and Warner Bros. cartoon skunk Pepe le Pew.

You can have fun spotting the ride references—well, let’s say you can have fun spotting the references provided you’ve actually been on the ride. These parts of the film played to uproarious laughter in American theaters, dead silence in foreign engagements. Some of them, such as the dog with the keys, turn up in both sequels.

“Curse of the Black Pearl” is a particularly beautiful movie as photographed by Dariusz Wolski. Like all great cinematographers, he’s a master of lighting; in this case, he uses low-key lighting throughout, giving the film a bronzed, burnished look that’s like illustrations from classic children’s books. He works hand in glove with production designer Brian Morris, who effectively echoes and expands on the design of the Disneyland ride.

The movie was especially well cast, and had to be, with powerful, distinctive actors like Depp and Rush on hand. (Both seem to be absolutely loving their jobs.) Orlando Bloom was just on the verge of becoming a star when he made the first “Pirates,” and it’s not hard to see why, even if the script requires him to be the “dork” of the bunch. As Elizabeth, Keira Knightley was 17 when she made this, but already a professional actor of long standing. She easily holds her own with everyone around her and, like the others, is clearly enjoying herself. Jack Davenport is required to be the stuffy, officious representative of law and order, while Jonathan Pryce, playing Elizabeth’s father, was given a little more leeway to be colorful. Even the supporting players have their own moments, particularly Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook (he of the wooden eye), as a pair of particularly scruffy pirates.

Oh, there’s a plot, of course, which to a degree reverses some of the standard pirate movie storylines: Captain Jack has no ship at first, and has to get one in order to retrieve his own ship, the Black Pearl of the title, which was taken over by Barbossa, his mutinous first mate. Also, the treasure hunt aspect is backwards: to lift the curse, which has turned them into walking skeletons (at least in moonlight) who cannot experiences the pleasures that the living can, Barbossa and his crew have had to collect all of the gold coins from a chest of Aztec treasure. (The scene in which Barbossa watches longingly while Elizabeth scarfs down some food is both funny and touching.)

But the plot isn’t all that important. It’s a skein on which to thread all these seafaring adventures, swordfights, sea battles and caves full of golden riches. Provided YOUR Blu-Ray player can handle BD-Java-encoded discs, which mine cannot, this is nearly an ideal purpose—provided you like the movie. It’s an especially rich-looking movie, with all this fine cinematography, makeup, production design and special effects work, and surges to life in high definition. The sound is also exceptional, making this similar to a theatrical experience.

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