Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pirates of the Revolution

So, my son and I went to see the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie the other day, which is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. If you're not familiar with this or the other two movies, you can check out the official Disney site.

And here I am transformed into a pirate, courtesy of the official Disney site. Arrrhhh, mateys, shiver me timbers, yo ho ho and a bottle of RUM!!!!

Anyway, these are movies based on the popular ride first established at Disneyland, later supplemented by a variation at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and you can also play and battle in a virtual reality version at DisneyQuest in Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney, I've done all three multiple times and they're all worth your while. But I have not, so far, gone on the other versions of the ride in Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland (which has an entire Pirateland!).

Anyway, the ride is a classic, as is the theme song, which goes like this:

Lyrics by Xavier Atencio and music by George Bruns

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We pillage, we plunder, we rifle, and loot,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
We kidnap and ravage and don't give a hoot,
Drink up me 'earties, yo ho.

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We extort, we pilfer, we filch, and sack,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
Maraud and embezzle, and even high-jack,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We kindle and char, inflame and ignite,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
We burn up the city, we're really a fright,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.

We're rascals, scoundrels, villans, and knaves,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
We're devils and black sheep, really bad eggs,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We're beggars and blighters, ne'er-do-well cads,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
Aye, but we're loved by our mommies and dads,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.

It's a fun song, a song that makes pirates seem childlike, or rather that's about children pretending to be pirates. Which is what kids did, sometimes, when I was growing up, and still do some extent. Back then, pirate costumes were a popular alternative on Halloween, but then again so was dressing up like hobos--ho boy, you couldn't get away with that today, now that hobos are known as the homeless.

The romanticized image of the pirate is odd, when you think about it, as pirates were basically criminals, the Sopranos of the sea, I guess you could say. But maybe it's not so odd to be celebrating an ocean-going mafia when we also celebrate the western outlaw (such as Billy the Kid), the Prohibition-era gangster (such as Al Capone), and of course the modern mobster.

But, how about if we called them aquatic terrorists? No more yo ho then, eh hobo? If you've ever gone on the ride, then you'll know what I mean when I say that the attraction makes light of a scenario where pirates are, in fact, terrorizing a town. In fact, they had to make some changes to take the edge off of scenes where the pirates are chasing women, which if you really think about it reflects the reality of sexual assault, although a scene where women are being auctioned off remains in tact, made humorous by the fact that it's a chubby lady who's being offered, one who presumably is pleased at the prospect of finding a man. (I'm just reporting what I've observed, mind you.)

But look, I'm not here to argue for political correctness. The generalized image of the pirate, which is occasionally parodied in the popular cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants, for example, has been reduced to a children's character. And the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is a part of our popular culture, charming and amusing, yo ho! Moreover, in the film adaptations, the imagery has been brought up to date so that there are strong assertive women, some of whom are pirates themselves, even pirate captains in this third movie, even the pirate king, er, queen.

I should add that it is hardly news, but worth mentioning nonetheless, that it came as an unexpected but altogether pleasant surprise that Disney was able to make an adaptation of a ride (a film adaptation of a ride!) into an entertaining and successful feature film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. They then were able to surpass the original with a very funny sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest.

A third film was obviously pushing their luck, and as I've mentioned in other posts (Spider-Man 3 and the Limitations of Adaptations, Shrek It Up, Baby), it's pretty much a rule that the third film in a series is the weakest of the bunch in quality, and popularity. And what I had read of the initial reviews of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End seemed to be consistent with that rule. I recall the criticism that the film is too long, too much action that accomplishes little in the first hour or so, etc. Of course, I also knew that, with lowered expectations, I'd probably enjoy the film just fine, albeit with the understanding that it would not match the quality of the first two.

Well, rules are made to be broken, and my son's verdict is that this is the best of the 3 Pirates movies. I'm not that certain myself, but I will say that it is at least as good as the other two. The second, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest, was funnier, and the first was the biggest surprise, because who knew what to expect? But this one was equally entertaining in its own way, and had the best action and adventure (in a fun sort of way, not in the sense of a movie like Die Hard) of the three, yo ho! It was long, it's true, but it wasn't a problem as the pacing of the movie was just fine, so it was long in a Lord of the Rings sense of long but I didn't mind.

What makes all three Pirates movies so entertaining is the absolutely brilliant performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. I am confident that this character will be recognized as one of the all-time greats of film comedy. He is the movie, and that's no yo hokum. Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa is fine as his rival, an older and more straightforward kind of pirate. Orlando Bloom as Will Turner moves the plot along, but adds little to the film. And Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann is interchangeable with any number of attractive young actresses. Jack Davenport is fine as the elitist British bad guy.

And I could go on, but the point is that it's Depp's movie, and there even are a few scenes where there are multiple copies of Jack Sparrow, albeit all in his head as he converses with himself (call it Depp psychology). Hey, the more Depp the better, yo ho! And seeing as Depp used Keith Richards as his model for creating the character of Captain Jack, it was great to see the Rolling Stones guitarist (whom I met a few times when I was a graduate student working for a store called Video Shack in Manhattan circa 1980-1982) as Sparrow's father, however briefly (and it was way cool when he played guitar, and broke a string!).

I should add that the cinematography and effects make the film easy on the eyes, and there's lots of light-hearted action, capped off by having Captain Barbossa conduct an impromptu wedding ceremony for Will and Elizabeth in the midst of a massive sword fight on board which they all take part in--cute choreography there, as they fight off attackers and take their vows at the same time. And there are interesting scenes of the world's end, which leads to a otherworldly limbo known as Davy Jones' locker. For those familiar with the rides, there are a couple of magic moments, one when the Black Pearl goes over the massive waterfall at world's end, and we go to black and hear sounds from the ride, and one where the little dog with the key that you see towards the end of the ride appears in the film.

There was a plot element about Will's desire to save his father, and their ultimate reconciliation, which should have been moving but came across as fairly bland, as well as an interesting storyline concerning the love, and betrayal, between Davy Jones and the goddess Calypso, that also did not excite. But the film became a bit poignant at the end with the parallel love between Will and Elizabeth. The connection between Elizabeth and Calypso, referred to in the middle of the film, and implied in its ending, was never fully spelled out, however, and it seems to me that something significant was left out, or more likely, cut out of the film, some bit of verbal explanation, if not a more substantive scene. It's as if they got to the end, and the movie was already so long that they had to edit out something, so they decided to leave the final bit of exposition on the cutting room floor. I wouldn't be surprised, though, to see something reinserted in a director's cut or expanded edition on DVD.

Ultimately, though, what make this pirate story palatable for a popular audience is that it becomes a reenactment of the American Revolution, a theme that we long for, as can be seen in movies like Star Wars, Red Dawn, Independence Day, even Die Hard, and on TV shows like Jericho (as I discussed in a previous post). In this case, the bad guys have British accents because they really are the British, and the Redcoats represent an overwhelming force that is threatening to wipe out all of the pirates and anyone who is at all sympathetic to them (the movie begins with multitudes of civilians being hanged, including women and children, for being in some way associated with the pirates). The Brits are once more the evil empire.

It is a bit of a stretch, of course, to turn pirates into rebel freedom fighters, but that's what this movie accomplishes, as a multicultural, international fellowship of pirates reluctantly unites to defend, you guessed it, FREEDOM!!!! That they are thieves, and cutthroats, is all cast aside, or overboard, as they are shown to have a higher code that they answer to--they respond to the rule of pirate law, while the British military have suspended all of their citizen's legal rights. The problem for the pirates is to find a way to overcome their excessive individualism (which manifests itself as selfishness, greed, and cowardice), and come together as a community. Into this mix comes the character of Jack Sparrow, who is a classic self-centered rogue in the mode of Humphrey Bogart's Rick from Casablanca, and Harrison Ford's Han Solo from Star Wars, claiming to only look out for number one, but in the end putting ego aside for the greater good.

And, yo ho!, the British are defeated, the pirates preserve their freedom, and freedom for all, and a new world's end order is established. Just in time for the 4th of July, mateys.

Yo ho!

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