Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The First Voyage of the Pirates of the Caribbean

"If you were waiting for the opportune moment, that was it."

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)

It seems to me that one of the best backdrops for a summer blockbuster has to be a movie that is set on or near water — or anything that one might perceive to be cooling and refreshing.

One of the big attractions of movies is the promise of escapism, right? Usually, you escape through a well–acted, intriguing story — but, no matter how intriguing the story or how top notch the acting may be, who wants to watch a movie that is set in the kind of environment you left behind when you entered the theater?

That isn't a moviegoer's only consideration, of course, but I'm sure that plays a role. "The Shining," after all, took place in a remote resort in Colorado in winter — but the movie was released in late spring. "Jaws" — if not the first summer blockbuster, certainly the first mega blockbuster — came out in late June. And "Lawrence of Arabia" — which was, of course, set in the desert — was released a couple of weeks before Christmas.

I remember, in my childhood, that the movies I usually enjoyed the most were the ones in climates that were opposite whatever prevailed outside. There were a few exceptions to that, but the best summer movies were, as I say, set on or near water or in winter — or anything else that made me feel cooler — which included, I suppose, any movie that could send a good chill down your spine.

Anyway, 10 years ago, "Pirates of the Caribbean" made its debut as a movie. One had to wonder why it took so long.

Pirates of the Caribbean was the last Disneyland attraction that Walt Disney himself helped design. It was unveiled at Disneyland in California in the late 1960s — nearly four decades before the movie version hit the theaters. In the interim, three other versions of the ride were designed and introduced at Disney theme parks around the world.

For modern moviegoers, that's the reverse of the accepted procedure. Usually, there is a hit movie first, and it is followed by an amusement park attraction.

In this case more than a couple of generations came to Disneyland and rode the ride before a movie with the same name appeared in movie theaters.

Well, that is a little misleading, I suppose. It was called "Pirates of the Caribbean" in print and general conversation, but that is really the name of the four–film franchise. The title of each was followed by a colon and the name of that particular episode in the story. "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is the actual name of the movie that premiered 10 years ago today.

I visited Disneyland once when I was about 15. I don't specifically remember the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but there were times when the movie seemed like an animated version of a Disneyland ride — if only because there was a certain similarity between all of the rides.

No matter.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was swashbuckling good summer fun. Some effects almost certainly could not have been achieved when Disney helped design the original ride in the mid–'60s; others probably were possible, but they would have seemed more primitive if they had been attempted earlier than they were.

The central character of this and all subsequent "Pirates of the Caribbean" flicks was Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a rather flamboyant character who, although a pirate, avoided all fights unless his participation was absolutely necessary. Depp truly made the role his own. (Imagine a combination of Keith Richards — according to Depp, the inspiration for his performance — and Depp's earlier portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson.)

(The only other actor I felt could have been as over the top as the role required was Crispin Glover, the dorky father from "Back to the Future" and the title character in the remake of "Willard." Glover brought enough eccentricity to any such part that he played, but I thought Depp did quite well.)

But Depp wasn't the star of "Pirates of the Caribbean." He was entertaining enough, but I've seen several of his movie performances that were better. The real star of the movie, I felt, was its special effects — the animated skeletons and all that stuff.

Probably the greatest drawback to this movie, I thought, was its length, nearly 2¼ hours. As it lurched to its conclusion, I felt that the moviemakers had tried to do too much. I noticed at the time that some of the children in the audience got antsy even though the movie had 20, even 30 minutes remaining.

I happened to catch this movie again on cable a month or two ago, and I found myself wondering, as I watched, about the fates of child stars, one of whom was featured briefly.

Most moviegoers probably already were familiar with Keira Knightley, who was the lead actress. Knightley, who was appearing in TV commercials and making guest appearances on TV shows when she was a child, made her movie debut in "Star Wars Episode I" and her first extended film appearance a couple of years later.

She was already familiar, to a certain extent, to viewers, but the young version of her character was played by Lucinda Dryzek, who was not yet 12 when this movie premiered.

It was a rare movie appearance for Dryzek, who has made a career of TV roles. In her native Britain, she is mostly known in recent years for her ongoing part in a BBC series, Life of Riley.

It's good to see a child star make a successful transition to more adult roles, especially given the kinds of problems many former child stars have had.