May 5, 2011

Why Is Pirates Of The Caribbean My Favorite Film Trilogy? Sea Turtles, mate.

Previously published at Hope Lies.

Being a member of the geek communities that I am, the question often arises of which trilogy I prefer: Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. To the puzzlement of many, I always answer with Pirates of the Caribbean. But Star Wars is a classic, you say, that revolutionized filmmaking and technology while hearkening back to the theme of classic legendary storytelling. Yes, but other than the middle entry, The Empire Strikes Back, there's little depth beyond the surface archetypes. It's all spectacularly well put together, but it's almost iconic to a fault, lacking much to chew on beyond what's clearly there. And then there's The Lord of the Rings, equally revolutionary, and filled with depths and layers as it adapts a fully fleshed tribute to the lore of ancient times. Marvelous films, all three, but extremely heavy and ponderous at times, particularly in the never ending third entry. There are moments I treasure, and moments that feel like wading through mud to get to those moments I treasure.

And then there's Pirates of the Caribbean.

What I like most about Pirates of the Caribbean is how it embraces its own silliness. It does have depth and complexity and moments that make you think and question, but it never forgets that the audience is there to be swept away and have a good time. Lovers are reunited, abandoned sons find their wayward fathers, freedom is suppressed by corporate overlords, but it's all told with barnacled sea beasts and roaring cannons, as though it were the half drunken tale of scurvy sea farers gathered in a tavern, with a mug of ale in one hand, the dream of a bowlegged lady in the other.

"Did ye dogs ever hear the one about the blacksmith who married the Gov'na's daughter? Married on the decks of the Black Pearl itself, by none other than Captain Barbosa. A storm was raging, a maelstrom ripping a vortex in the sea around them. And they was in the midst of a battle with the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones hisself ordering his cannons ablaze, his locker lying in wait for their souls at the heart of the vortex below. Aye, it was quite the wedding, it was. And did I say she was the Gov'na's daughter? What I meant was, she be the Pirate King!"

The films never shy from the reality of piracy, that they were filthy, often diseased people who'd just as soon shoot each other for supplies than ask or bargain, but only to give the fantasy a bit of an anchor. This is about freedom. Adventure. "Take what you can, give nothing back!" The lands have laws, so set out to the anarchy of the open waters, where every ship becomes its own little kingdom ruled by fear, respect, or both.

This is the world of Jack Sparrow, the most glorious failure around. Our introduction comes to him as he sails into port atop the mast of a sinking dinghy, the ship he sold his soul for taken from him by his first mate. Much has been said over the years about Johnny Depp's now iconic swaying delivery, but it truly does sell this man who's either a genius or a fool. Everything he does, every miraculous way through which he throws himself in and out of situations, is often impossible to define as either a master strategy or sheer dumb luck. All we can really tell about the man is that he wants to be the greatest pirate of them all, the Immortal Captain Jack Sparrow, and every action is his way of trying really really hard to obtain that goal. And, yet, it's the other two leads who reach such legendary status, almost entirely without intention. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the orphaned blacksmith, becomes the immortal ferrymen of sea-lost souls to the afterlife. Elizabeth Swann-Turner (Keira Knightley), the pampered daughter of a Governor, become the elect Pirate King of the Brethren Court of Pirate Lords. Both of these positions are exactly the types of standing Jack would love to find himself in, but he passes them on to the others at the last moment out of both strategy and his deep character flaw of occasionally doing the right thing.

The mythology to these films is amazing as little coins of phrase and lines from sea shanties are given full life. The tentacled, crab-legged Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). His betrayed love, the sea goddess Calypso (Naomie Harris). The Flying Dutchmen, with a crew of men bound to serve so as to stave off their fates in the afterlife. The fearsome Krakken that swallows ships and their crews whole. The Dead Man's Chest, which holds the key to immortality for anyone who can find its key. The Nine Pieces of Eight, triggered by a hung child's song to summon the Brethren Court. All of this is woven into a salty, wave-worn epic that never forgets to sneer out a toothless grin at its own utter absurdity. Take, for example, the Brethren Court (in the town of Shipwreck, in Shipwreck Cove, on Shipwreck Island), which never elects a king because everyone votes for themselves. Or the unbinding of Calypso, where people argue about the precise theatrical incantation. It's larger than life and both awes and pokes a little fun at itself for standing next to life and being so much larger.

But what could possibly threaten all of these mythological wonders, and give us a villain worthy of the times? Corporate greed. In much the same way the railroad industry crushed the gunslinging cowboys of legend, the East India Trading Company is tightening a net over the waters, offering paid jobs to pirates who join them, a hangman's noose to those who won't. Through powers granted by the King himself, and the enslaved might of Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) carves out entire swaths of sea-faring freedom and threatens to bring the age of pirates to a close. The climax of At World's End, where his machinations are blown to pieces like the splintered world of his ship, as he calmly walks down a staircase to his demise, is a stunning piece of filmmaking.

I do have my issues with the series. As rousing as the maelstrom battle is, there's something missing from the finale when entire fleets of ships line up on both sides, but only two boats do the clashing. Much is made of the other Pirate Lords, but we never see them in a battle so as to enforce their distinctive presence. James Norrington (Jack Davenport), goes through a fantastic character arc in the first and second films, then comes and goes with a disappointing end in the third. Chow Yun-Fat, an amazing actor, is almost entirely wasted as his character never pays off his promising setup. Stellan Skarsgard brings everything down every time he lurches around groaning "My son! My son!" And the twisted relationship between Calypso and Davy Jones never gets its final moment.

But none of those elements are enough to ruin the series for me. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio really know how to craft a story that's funny, filled with heart, yet keeps me on my toes and doesn't refuse to pull the heavy punches. Many complain about the amount of backstabbing and betrayal in the third film, with allegiances changing hands every couple of minutes, but that's one of my favorite elements. These are pirates, and as the crowd gets larger and the stakes more overwhelming, they'd of course be constantly re-evaluating their positions as driving motives either intertwine or clash. I challenge someone to point out one twist that wasn't true to the characters and their ultimate goals. And speaking of the funny, there's a wealth of side gags and oneliners on display, many from Jack's flustered first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally), or the bumbling duo of Pintel and Ragetti (Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook). Instead of being embarrassed of his family-friendly slapstick debut, Mouse Hunt (he shouldn't be, it's amazing), director Gore Verbinsky fully embraces that tone and style for fabulous setpieces like an escape from island natives while Jack is tied to a pole and his crew are in rolling cages, or Jack captaining a crew of himself in the afterlife as an army of stone crabs push the Black Pearl through desert dunes, or a three way sword fight breaking out around, on top of, and inside a water wheel that's broken loose and is rolling through jungles and clashing enemies.

I love this series because it makes me smile. It falls back on the familiar, but with a clever skew. Instead of seeking an ancient treasure that will grant them immortality, the pirates of the first film already have that treasure, but want to put it back because the price is too much to bear. The characters are involving and surprising, and take unexpected turns that still stay true to their hearts. The action is rousing and spectacular, with some of the most seamless digital effects yet to appear on film. The music is iconic with themes I hum for weeks after each viewing. And then there's the franchise's greatest creation, the villain-turned-hero Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), a pirate too awesome to die. The natural captain to the ship Jack always tries to claim, Barbossa saunters and barks and snarls out an "ARRRRRRR!!!" in the way every classic pirate should.

And as the trio of adventures come to a close, we leave Captain Jack Sparrow much as we first met him. The Black Pearl has once again been swiped by Barbossa, and Jack is left on the open seas in a one-man dinghy. But this is Jack Sparrow, and he has everything he needs. A map to immortality. A compass pointing to his heart's desire. Wind caught in a sail. And a bottle of rum.

Drink up, me hearties. Yo ho.

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