Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Never before have I been so thrilled about being so wrong. "That’s why they play the games." - This is a hoary old chestnut that NFL fans inevitably mutter when some 2 and 10 squad is trouncing the Super Bowl Champs at halftime. Basically it means: you never know. One could extend this cliché over to movies as well: “That’s why we go see ‘em.” Because no matter how disposable a film may seem at the outset, one never knows what treasures may lie in the finished product. I’ll admit it: I was one who sneered at the prospect of a movie based on a Disneyland ride; I scoffed at the combination of Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer from the very beginning. But man oh man do I love being wrong; Pirates of the Caribbean is the best studio movie so far this year, it deserves a half-dozen Oscar nominations, and I can promise that it will rank among my favorite movies of 2003. All together now: Whooda thunk it?!?!? Movie fans rely a lot on previous performances; the idea of a big-budget pirate flick based on a Disney attraction and produced by the king of Flash & Bang Cinema seemed an unwieldy combination at best. (And that’s me being kind.) It’s tough to blame the movie freaks for their early skepticism: there hasn’t been a good pirate movie in about 40 years, and the only other features based on Disney rides (The Country Bears and Mission to Mars) were pretty darn bad. Plus add Bruckheimer to the mix and you’d hear a lot of boo-hooing about “loud, garish action scenes” and “next-to-no depth whatsoever”. Well if all that history is true, get ready to add a glorious new amendment to the books. Because Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is (against all odds) one of the most dizzyingly entertaining big-budget adventures of the past five years. I sit here incredulous as I type such things, but I can’t remember the last action/adventure epic that enthralled me so effortlessly. As I sat there watching the movie, I rattled off my mental checklist to see how much they got right: The plot. Yes, it’s a whole lot of adventure flick hooey: unrequited love and devious buccaneers, stolen haunted treasures and undead armies, excitement, comedy, betrayals, high-seas adventure; it’s all here. But here’s the best part: It makes sense! What a simple joy it is to watch a movie and have the plot make sense. We know where one scene is supposed to lead us; plot threads actually TAKE us somewhere; the antics never seem rushed or forced or confused. Yes, it’s a whole lot of adventure flick hooey, but it’s logical and smart hooey. What a nice switch. Things start out with a standard "damsel gets kidnapped" hook and quickly boils over to include devious allies, insufferable soldiers, deserted islands, tons of treasures and (of course) three dozen scummy old pirates who turn into rotting skeletons when the moonlight hits them. It's even more fun than it sounds. The look. Good gravy does this movie look gorgeous. From the massive old galleons to the cavernous pirate lairs to the expansive exterior sets, the movie is just stunning to look at. If one wanted to judge the movie solely on visual scope, art direction, costume design, etc., he would find virtually nothing to dislike here. The DVD will look great, but this is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen. The tone. Fully playful and breezy but never ironic or overtly self-referential, the screenplay (courtesy of Shrek scribes Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio) is laden with moments scary, funny, thrilling and exciting. Much like everyone’s favorite adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark) this film is clearly written with an obvious affection for the Pirate Movie genre. And by Pirate Movie I mean Captain Blood and Treasure Island, not Cutthroat Island and Pirates. The score. Loud and joyously bombastic during the action scenes, light and atmospheric during the chatty bits, Klaus Badelt’s score is pitch-perfect in every way. I can’t remember the last time I left a movie itching to buy the score, but here’s one I’ll be purchasing soon. The action. Any solid director can cull together a suitably kinetic action scene. What Gore Verbinski (The Ring) has done here is nothing short of exhilarating. While the foreground is appropriately laden with clanging swords and burly fists and one screeching monkey, the backdrop is overloaded with astoundingly cool galleons, crystal-clear waters, and various other impressively majestic sights. If you're doling out some well-earned praise, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski should be among the first to applaud. The cast. Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings) sheds his elven ears and delivers an appropriately heroic presence while relative newcomer Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) proves as charming as she is lovely. Geoffrey Rush (Shine) is clearly having a whole lot of fun as the head villain, though he consistently keeps his performance just this side of high camp. He’s funny, but he’s also effectively nefarious. Another small touch that helps the film immeasurably: there are several colorful background characters, none of whom are played by an actor you’d classify as ‘familiar’. None of that “Hey look it’s Bob Hoskins as a pirate!” stuff. The supporting players are great across the board, and their anonymity helps sell the flick. The Depp. Look, everyone already knows that Johnny Depp is one of Hollywood’s most unique and talented actors. The guy does do big-budget stuff, but even then he brings something quirky and untraditional to even the most familiar characters. (Check his work in Sleepy Hollow and/or From Hell and you’ll see what I mean - if you’re not already nodding your head in agreement with me.) Simply put: Depp is a man possessed. His performance as the egocentric Jack Sparrow is one of the most entertaining bits of acting of the past several years. Were Pirates a big stinkeroo (which, clearly, it is not) Depp’s performance would still be worthy of your nine bucks at the box office. In a perfect world, one in which popcorn movies were worthy of old-school respect, Depp would earn an Oscar nomination for his work here. The sly bits. Since Pirates of the Caribbean is (loosely) based on the popular theme park ride, one could expect a few references to said attraction. That these additions are worked so effortlessly into the film (those unfamiliar with the ride will overlook them entirely) is yet another example of how much care went into making the film so much more than just ‘product: expensive yet inevitably profitable’. You can FEEL that Verbinski and Bruckheimer and their screenwriters are actively trying to make something worthwhile. Needless to say, they’ve accomplished something quite special. There is a clear sense here that Pirates of the Caribbean is a whole lot more than “just another summertime popcorn-muncher” and damn if everyone involved doesn’t pull it off with flying colors. If there’s any justice in the dog-eat-dog summer movie season, this flick will sprout some enormous legs and surprise everyone like it so completely surprised me. On the downside I have to admit I was entirely wrong about this movie; on the upside, I now have another great adventure flick to add to my collection. Gloriously entertaining proof positive that Big-Budget Extravaganza and Quality Filmmaking need not be mutually exclusive, Pirates of the Caribbean really does offer something for everyone. You may not love it as much as I clearly did, but I'd be willing to bet the flick shows you a damn good time.