Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was the hottest movie of the summer and, I hope all the ten-year-olds out there will forgive me for saying this: it’s a mess. Based, and not loosely, on the Disneyland theme park ride of the same name, “Pirates” shows how close the American movie industry is to scraping the bottom of the barrel. With no intelligible plot, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on costumery, sets and special effects. Only a wild performance by Johnny Depp merits the investment of $7.50. But, like most American women, I’d pay plenty just to watch Depp read the phone book.
“Pirates” is Disney’s first PG-13 movie, but no one can figure out why. There’s no sex, no serious bad language and the violence is jokey. Disney seems to have wangled the rating to bring a crossover, date-night audience into an extravaganza aimed at preadolescent boys. It’s not as silly as it sounds. Half my undergraduate students say animated PG films are their choice for a romantic evening. But the nuclear scale explosion in “Aladdin” was scarier, “Pocahontas” showed more skin, and the studio put more convincing love scenes in “Holes,” including a full-screen interracial kiss.
If there’s a story, it’s about a lad who is a pirate but doesn’t know it and a girl who is supposed to marry a commodore but is too dutiful to refuse until a crew of pirates rips her corset off. Depp is a marooned buccaneer who does his best work when he’s been hit over the head with something heavy. He is duly bashed with a spar, a mast, a pike, and a demi-john of rum. A death ship crew of audio-animatronic skeletons takes up 45 minutes too many and gives back only some glass eyeball jokes. I kept asking myself when there was going to be a wooden leg joke, but one never arrived. No, it doesn’t make any sense.
“Pirates” could be, should be about the return of the repressed, as all pirate, ghost, gangster and horror stories really are. Like terrorists, pirates are marginals and out-casts who rage at the power of the state that has screwed them over. A really good pirate story should give us the eerie feeling that the people we are supposed to be afraid of are trying to tell us something. Something important. Think about the creeps you got reading “Treasure Island,” for instance. But real uneasiness is too risky for Disney, and there’s no evidence the screenwriters have sat down for an hour with Freud’s essay on the uncanny or Eric Hobsbawm’s “Bandits.”
Lest we identify in the wrong direction, the pirates are divided into good and bad, and the bad ones are con-tained on the floating charnel house. This way, the movie can settle down to dwell on surface and style. It’s about how good Keira Knightley looks tight-laced in French brocade, how fabulous Orlando Bloom looks brandishing a sword, and how everybody in the 18th century had rotten teeth, except for the couple who are destined to kiss. If you were planning to kiss, you had orthodontia and whitening. It’s especially about how great Depp looks in heavy kohl eyeliner and beaded locks.
Given a script this weak, Johnny Depp must have decided that his only choice was to have some fun. So he plays an androgynous, staggering drunk and insane cap-tain Jack Sparrow. Well, his androgyny is limited to gestures. Still, the kids enjoy his costume changes as much as he does, and his goofy postures are being copied all over town. Come October, every ten-year-old boy in the nation will be demanding a beaded beard and a leather tricorn hat. Expect a run on eye shadow.
Depp’s performance is a reminder that it’s worth rent-ing everything he’s ever been in, starting with “Don Juan de Marco.” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” though, is just another Disney extrusion, the latest in a long stream. The next chunk up on the assembly line is “Haunted House,” also based on a theme park ride, starring Eddie Murphy. Which goes to show, there’s a difference between “synergy” and being out of ideas.
SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.