Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: Second thoughts

Whoever recommended this movie knew exactly what they were doing. Star Wars is something I would have loved to have seen as a kid, but Pirates of the Caribbean would have sailed right past me (haha!) if I had seen it when it came out. This is a film packed with special effects, but it's at its best when they're not in play. Funny how that keeps being the case. :D

I needed to see Princess Bride before this film to appreciate the heritage it pillaged and plundered. Jack Sparrow's whole way of talking, the banter-filled and excellently staged duels, the sort of casual disregard the whole cast has for the fantastical, dangerous and unlikely, all of it is like this bigger-budget, somewhere-in-the-rough-neighborhood-of-as-good cast, pirate-flavored homage to the older and better movie. Princess Bride had a hard time with me since I was just coming off of Star Wars, but I rewatched it the other day and it's like good leftovers - the good parts get even better and all the excess crap has gotten cooked off or left to the side.

Captain Jack Sparrow is this fantastica, jerking, demented marionette of a man - I almost want to call him the best puppet since Yoda, because he's physically articulated like one of those dangly wooden puppets with the plus-sign control thing. Rum, pissy women and his ship are Jack Sparrow's stock in trade and the guy just leaps right off the screen. Folks, he's possibly the best thing since Han Solo (Fezzik would be standing here if he'd gotten more screen time, the lovable lunk.) Somehow, the writers even managed to make his match in Captain Barbosa (thanks Rachel), who's disinclined to acquiesce to having time for Jack's shit.

You all know what the problem with this movie is. I sure know. But first, let's talk about effects. They got themselves some great sets there, including at least part of a really big boat, and while I know there were computers helping out it all still looked very good. The skeleton/zombies with beards, though, threw me right off. Looked too weird. Beards and eyes. It just didn't click for me. I don't know that it was needed so much, in the end. The best parts of the movie are all dialogue and interaction, all the time and always. Whether it's the buffoon guards, Norrington (thanks Rachel) playing the Costello to fortune's Abbott, the two pirate goons who show up all the time, Gibbs, even COTTON (and he can't talk!)... anyone and everyone gets a chance to say at least one amusing thing.

So let's get back to the issues. It's a longer movie than I think it needed to be; I could have dropped like 10-20 minutes from it and come away pretty happy. A lot of that was in the action scenes, actually, which says something as to where the real quality of the movie was. It's like they produced an excellent film and then decided they wanted to spend a few million making it less good.

The real issue, though, isn't with the length or the action. It's with the protagonists. In English we were taught about something called "agency" or decisionmaking vis-a-vis how it impacts the plot. The protagonist is the one with agency in the face of a crisis, if I'm remembering this correctly. That makes it Liz. Except it's Will. Except it's really probably Jack. The movie makes out like Will Turner is the protagonist: he gets the girl (classic), does the heroic save-the-day stuff for his lady and his, uh, "friend," and has the character development wherein he learns that pirate's his birthright and the rest was just artificial filler. What a shame, then, that he's not only really boring, but monumentally upstaged by the human dynamo that is Captain Jack Sparrow. This guy's like the comic relief, the sidekick, the gadfly poking at the plot every time you think it's straight and square - but he owns the movie. And yet we keep getting sidetracked with Will. And Liz.

They tried with Liz, they did. Elizabeth Not-Turner (What was her last name? I'm sure they said it) knows of the Pirate's Code... and a fat lot of good it did her. She's got an inspired sense of nautical tactics... which they don't have an opportunity to execute. She's brave... but naive and gullible. They even tried to give her a really dumb laugh line toward the end. It didn't take. She's got all these romantic notions about pirates, piracy and the way her life could go, and she lets them run her like clockwork. It all sidelines her and makes her the agent of her own repeated distress. Doesn't help that she's pretty wooden too. Obviously she and Will were made for each other. Out of the same block of wood.

So that's the problem with the movie: the protagonists are less interesting and much less appealing than the deuteragonist and the villain. Jack Sparrow steals the show and Barbosa pirates it right back, over and over again. Why anyone lets Jack Sparrow speak is a mystery to me. The cast is marvelously rounded out with some characters who would have done a lot of better things with Mr. and Mrs. Wood's screen time. I'm sorry they didn't get the chance. The movie's got a killer musical theme for HEROIC PIRATEY ANTICS and a diverse crew of scallywags who keep things interesting. If it were shorter, a bit more clear on who the protagonist either is or should be, and dropped some action and effects in favor of making better use of the supporting cast, it could be giving Princess Bride a run for its money. Instead, it's a decent nod to the better movie. I had a lot of fun, but my pick for swashbuckling will always go to the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya.


  1. Elizabeth's surname is Swann.

  2. Fun fact, Jack was indeed supposed to be a supporting character, but then Johnny Depp decided to play him like like pirate Keith Richards, and the rest is history. Altough I think whoever was doing the casting was nuts if they thought Orlando Bloom could play a credible lead opposite Johnny Depp.

  3. Is the Lord of the Rings trilogy on your list somewhere?

  4. Regarding the problem confusing protagonists:
    American cinema has had the "bad-boy"anti hero so far up its rear for so long its lost the ability to create a classically heroic hero. A US studio could never achieve anything like Lord of the Rings. Aragorn would be seducing both women, Legolas and Gimli would beat the heck out each other and the hobbits would all be thieves.

    Sorry dont want to hi-jack the thread. Just go watch LotR.

    1. sounds more like games of D&D...

  5. Strangely enough, I like Will better than Jack-- though again, my opinion may be tainted by the sequels, which made me sick to death of Jack. Narcisista's exactly right about this.

    Kiera Knightley is actually a pretty good actress, so I don't know what's up in this movie.

  6. I think the protagonist of this movie is really the three of them, and the relationship(s) between them. :^)

  7. While Jack Sparrow is certainly flamboyant, I still think, at its heart, this movie wanted to be an old-school pirate movie (like Captain Blood, maybe) and that's why Will and Elizabeth were supposed to be the protagonists. Of course, Johnny Depp stole the show -- he's very good at that!

    BTW, I've been reading along and not commenting, but I love your commentary on All The Things.

  8. Wooden main characters and absolutely NO plot. Like National Treasure 2, it seems like they made up the script as they went along.