When Disney announced they would start producing movies based on their classic rides, the overwhelming response was that of derision. Most people felt Disney were cynically trying to cash in on rides which had perhaps stopped packing in the crowds as they used to. However, Disney surprised everyone with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. For one thing, the film had some A-list actors in the form of Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush, along with great character actors (Jonathan Pryce) and major box office draws (Orlando Bloom). This wasn't the cast of a cheapy knockoff. Disney brought in some of their best screenwriters, and enlisted Gore Verbinski, who had recently seen success by remaking the Japanese horror masterpiece The Ring, to direct. The sum of all the hard work of these talented people (and many behind the scenes craftspeople) was Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, a massive box office hit that has created one of the coolest and funniest characters of recent memory.
The film opens with a British Navy ship sailing to the Caribbean. On the way, they encounter a merchant ship that has been decimated by pirates. Only a single boy survives, and he gives his name as Will Turner. Jump ahead several years, and now Will Turner is a young man (as portrayed by Orlando Bloom), and he is hopelessly in love with Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of the Governor of Port Royale (Jonathan Pryce), a British island in the Caribbean. On a whim, Elizabeth wears a golden medallion that she found on Will when he was rescued from the pirate attack all those years ago. She's given a corset by her father to wear at a ceremony where the local Navy commander, Norrington (Jack Davenport) is to be named Commodore. Meanwhile, infamous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has come to Port Royale with the intention of stealing a ship to continue his pirating elsewhere. During the ceremony, Elizabeth, unable to breathe in her corset, falls into the ocean. When the medallion hits the water, it emits an unaccountable shockwave through the water. Jack, seeing Elizabeth falls, saves her, although the kind act gets him thrown in jail by Norrington. That night, a dreadful pirate ship known as The Black Pearl comes to Port Royale and abducts Elizabeth. In a panic, Will frees Jack from jail on the condition that Jack lead Will to the Black Pearl so he can save Elizabeth. On the way, Will learns that Jack's intentions are less than pure, as Will's father was a crew member on the Black Pearl...when its captain was Jack himself. Jack was mutineered against by his crew, led by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). The crew then went on to steal Aztec gold that turned out to be cursed. Now the pirates are undead and want to relieve their curse. The only way they can do that is with Will's blood, and Will's not sure he can actually trust Jack.
It looks like there's a lot of plot to Pirates, but one of the brilliant parts of the picture is the way everything effortlessly unfolds. The script, by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (best known for writing Aladdin), is a triumph of smart writing. Most of the exposition is delivered without feeling like the story has stopped in its tracks, and events lead logically from one to the other. In addition, there's plenty of humor and impressive action set pieces.
A large portion of the pacing is due to director Gore Verbinski. He understood how delicate of a balance he had between the action, humor, and drama. Too much of any one would topple the entire project. But it's to his credit that the movie as a construction is so finely tuned. In a way, it's a perfect action film. It's got excitement, the human element, and humor to prevent it from taking itself too seriously. And you can watch the movie repeatedly without finding any flaws, or realizing what you thought were flaws have actually been accounted for and are explained or clarified later. I personally have watched the movie more times than I can count, and still laugh in all the right spots, and hold my breath during the action sequences. That's a pretty amazing feat for me to enjoy a movie as much on the 80th viewing as I did on the first.
Of course, the real star of the picture is Johnny Depp. Depp reportedly based his portrayal of Jack Sparrow on Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards crossed with Looney Tunes character Pepe Le Pew, but even with those references in place, Jack is clearly a unique character. Of course, Depp has always been known for playing crazy characters, but Jack takes the cake. A mix of extreme intelligence, a lot of luck, and sheer insanity, Jack is, as Barbossa describes him, "off the map." Lurching as if perpetually off balance, Jack is funny, dangerous, and an absolutely iconic figure. Depp was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, which shows just how unique and special it is.
The supporting cast essentially have to play straight man to Jack's incessant antics, but they play their parts well. Orlando Bloom does a nice job as Jack's foil. Will's got a good heart but an insatiable thirst for adventure. Even in the most life threatening situations you can tell he's having fun. Keira Knightley plays Elizabeth as far more independent than a woman of the period would have been allowed to be, but she makes for a strong heroine. Geoffrey Rush gives the second best performance as the fearsome Barbossa. You really believe that this man is Jack's despicable equal, and makes for a great heavy. Jack Davenport and Jonathan Pryce have to be more stuffy due to their roles, but even then they both manage to inject humanity into their parts.
I could talk for days about all the wonderful things that make up Curse of the Black Pearl and still not manage to list everything. It is one of, if not the best action film of the last several years. I can't recommend it highly enough.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Hold onto your hats, because this 2.35:1 AVC transfer is going to knock your socks on your ass. When Pirates was released on DVD, many people complained about prevalent edge enhancement (which, I have been informed by a reliable source, is not actually edge enhancement at all) that lowered the quality of a lot of the image. There are no such problems to be found here, as this newly minted transfer, taken from the original digital intermediaries and color corrected for home video (as it's a different color space than film), is as flawless as its successor, Dead Man's Chest. The depth, clarity, and detail of this transfer is simply mind-boggling. The Pirates movies on Blu-ray represent a new standard for all high definition content on any format. If it sounds like I'm gushing, I apologize. But spectacular image quality is why I got into HD disc formats in the first place, so to see not one but two discs set a new benchmark for visual quality is an exciting thing for me. If Disney can get transfers to look this good this early on in a format's lifespan, imagine how incredible transfers will look once the format has matured. Take a bow, Disney, you deserve it.
One of the greatest aspects of these new HD formats have been the ability to bring us lossless sound, which many people consider more important than better image quality. Luckily for them (and everyone else), Disney has provided an uncompressed 5.1 48kHz/24-bit PCM track for our enjoyment. I'm going to throw out the word "reference" again here, as this mix really is. Right from the beginning, as the Navy ship sails on to the screen, you can hear the water lapping against the side of the hull, the creak of the wood, heck, you can even hear the rolling of the fog. And when the action kicks in, you might just believe that you've turned pirate yourself and are being hounded by the Royal Navy. The sounds are so crisp, and so up front, but with plenty of depth to the mix and extensive use of surrounds. Once again, my hat is off to the people who put this together.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is a two-disc set, with the movie on a 50 GB Blu-ray disc and the supplements from the original DVD on a second 25 GB Blu-ray disc. The extras for disc one are as follows:
Scoundrels of the Sea: A brand new interactive feature utilizing BD-J, Scoundrels of the Sea gives you a new way to watch Curse of the Black Pearl. When you start the movie with this mode turned on, interesting historical facts appear throughout the picture in pop-ups. Some of these pop-ups will contain a piece of Aztec gold on it. If you click on the gold, it will set up a documentary with more information about the subject. These documentaries do not interrupt the film, however. Instead, once the movie ends, you watch all of the documentaries you chose back to back, in 1080p no less. This is a unique feature on several levels. It gives you more interactivity and depth than a standard "pop-up video" style extra, and it allows you to customize what information you actually receive. Not interested in why pirate captains dressed so outlandishly? Don't click on the Aztec gold for that subject and you won't have to see it. For ease of use, there is also an index if you wish to peruse the videos without watching the entire movie. Scoundrels of the Sea is a strong step forward for interactive special features on HD discs.
Commentary with Director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp: A rather low-key commentary, Verbinski and Depp reminisce about their shooting experience. Frankly, I was not very engaged in this commentary. Portions were interesting, but Verbinski and Depp were so quiet and laid back that I found myself drifting.
Commentary with Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, and Producer Jerry Bruckheimer: On the complete opposite end of the spectrum we get this bouncy, delightful commentary. Keira Knightley and Jack Davenport joke and flirt their way through the movie, and while they don't give away much info of interest, their interplay is frequently hilarious. Bruckheimer was recorded separately and gives a far more conventional, but perceptive set of comments.
Commentary with Screenwriters Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert: The most balanced of the three commentaries, here the screenwriters discuss the mechanics of story, the development of characters, and the themes. Elliot and Rossio also give a few production stories. Worth hearing.
Movie Showcase: Disney's standard BD extra where they preselect scenes that they think would make good demo material, which for this movie should be the entire running time.
And disc two:
An Epic At Sea - The Making Of Pirates: A 40-minute documentary broken up into smaller portions, this was designed to be the heart of the supplements. Looking at it now, it feels almost bare. Sure, it's got interviews with all the major members of cast and crew, and the breaking up of the piece into smaller sections allows it to focus specifically on things like costumes or locations, but it left me wanting more. Luckily, the rest of the supplements on these packed discs tell me all I want to know.
"Fly on the Wall" Segments: These clips have held up much better. They take a specific sequence from the film (such as Elizabeth being made to walk the plank or Will saving Jack from being hung) and shows the cast and crew filming the sequence over several days. It ends with a portion of the final sequence. This is a great way to see how the crew worked together and what the creative process was. The scenes exhibited are: Town Attack on Port Royale, Tortuga, Blacksmith Duel with Jack and Will, The Cave, Jack's Hanging, The Dock, The Tavern, The Plank.
Becoming Captain Jack: A look at Captain Jack, with Johnny Depp explaining how he created the character and where he goes when he's Jack Sparrow.
Becoming Barbossa: A similar look at Barbossa, with Geoffrey Rush discussing the character rather eloquently.
Thar She Blows!: Footage of the green screen shoot of the crew blowing up the model for The Interceptor.
The Monkey's Name Is Jack: A hilarious collection of joke interviews with Depp, Bloom, Knightley, Verbinski, and Bruckheimer as they describe their monkey co-star. Rush talks more seriously about her, and the whole piece is short and sweet.
Sneak Attack Animatic: A CGI animatic of the pirates walking underwater to attack The Dauntless. I've never been a big fan of animatics, and the CGi one is even more rudimentary than most.
Pirates Around The World: Scenes from the film dubbed into several languages. The best is hearing Jack speak first Italian, then Japanese.
Spirit of the Ride: Some people may not even think of it this way anymore, but Curse of the Black Pearl was based on the ride Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. This featurette shows all of the homages to the ride thrown into the movie, and there were a considerable amount more than I had realized.
"Dead Men Tell No Tales" - The History of the Attraction: This shows the actual creation of the original ride, from Walt Disney's concept drawings to the work of the animatronics mechanics and more.
Deleted and Alternate Scenes: A twenty minute collection of deleted and alternate scenes. None of them better than the scenes that appear in the final cut.
Diary of a Ship: A video diary of the Lady Washington replica, a.k.a. the ship that played The Interceptor in the film. The ship was actually sailed from Long Beach to the island of St. Vincent for the production.
Diary of a Pirate: Lee Arenberg, who plays Pintel, got the chance to film his experiences making Curse of the Black Pearl. Arenberg is an intelligent, literate, and humorous guy, so the diary is good fun, although at times tends to err towards being too cutesy. Overall, though, a good 10-minute piece.
Jerry Bruckheimer Photo Diary: Producer Jerry Bruckheimer talks about his passion for photography, and we get to see some of the results.
Blooper Reel: Standard blooper reel fare. Fun, but not as much fun as if you had been there.
"Below Deck" - An Interactive History of Pirates: A more conventional interactive feature. A sort of a point and click adventure, the feature puts you on a pirate ship and lets you explore various aspects of pirate life. Clicking on different items brings up a video of historical experts who detail various portions of how life would have been. A lot of the information is also presented in a far more interesting form in the Scoundrels of the Sea feature.
Moonlight Serenade Scene Progression: A look from a CGI standpoint of how they created the scene where Elizabeth discovers that the pirates are cursed.
Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color: A clip from one of Walt Disney's TV shows where he displays the Pirates ride when it was back in its conceptual stages. It's interesting to see Disney's vision for the ride. Many of these clips appear in the History of the Attraction featurette.
Image Galleries: 'Nuff said.
Sadly, none of the second disc extras are in HD.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is a perennially enjoyable action flick that is constantly rewatchable. Johnny Depp has created an instantly classic character in Captain Jack Sparrow, and the screenwriters penned a pitch perfect script. And there's only one way worth watching the movie: in high definition. That's what makes this Blu-ray disc such a godsend. The two Pirates movies on Blu-ray are a new standard for visual and aural quality in high def on any format. On top of that, you get new and innovative interactive features as well as the full complement of original DVD features. Pirates on Blu-ray is now the reference. It's the one to beat. Yo ho, me mateys, yo ho! DVD Talk Collector Series.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.