There are days Michael Stailey wishes he were a pirate instead of a Chief Justice, and this be one of 'em!
Our reviews of Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (published January 5th, 2004) and Pirates Of The Caribbean Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published September 15th, 2008) are also available.
Prepare to be blown out of the water.
In anticipation of the theatrical release for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Disney and it's Buena Vista Home Entertainment arm have taken the first two films of the trilogy and plussed them as lynchpin entries in their high definition Blu-ray line. Since diving into the format, I've seen my fair share of Blu-ray enhanced films, but none of them have looked or sounded like this. For those who feel they've seen all that director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer's Pirates films have to offer, think again!
Facts of the Case
Cursed Aztec gold. A betrothed damsel not so in distress, in love with a blacksmith apprentice of pirate descent, both of whom are on the run from a ship crewed by the damned, and captained by a man so evil hell itself spat him back out. Their reluctant savior? A swarthy, sea-legged pirate Captain without a ship or a crew, whose sole purpose in life is to escape unscathed from the myriad of enemies he's made over the years, while turning a tidy little profit at the same time.
My first trip to the Magic Kingdom was in the spring of '74 and I immediately fell in love with the Pirates E-ticket attraction. Five years later, I had a chance to ride Walt's original attraction at Disneyland and fell in love all over again. The world Disney Imagineers created for these characters is, to this day, immersive. For 15 minutes, you are transported to another world, where swashbuckling anti-heroes live outside the rules for the sheer adventure of it all. But once the ride was over, the excitement faded and you returned to the real world, until your next opportunity to visit.
Fast-forward 24 years, to the summer of 2003. One of Hollywood's most respected non-leading men, toplines the live-action adaptation of Disney's beloved attraction. Having seen what they did with The Country Bears and were about to do with The Haunted Mansion, few held out much hope at all. But low and behold, projectors around the country unspooled an adventure so rich in character, scenery, and excitement that it harkened back to the action films of Hollywood's golden age. Unsuspecting seaside cities being raped, pillaged, and plundered; mighty ships chasing each other across the high seas; sword fights; cannon battles; bar brawls; hidden caves filled with untold wealth and treasure; and cgi undead pirates the likes of which we'd never seen. After decades in celluloid mothballs, pirates were hot once again.
The success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl caught everyone by surprise, especially the creative team behind the picture. Oh, they knew they were making something unique, but in Hollywood that rarely turns into financial success. This time, it did.
With films like Con-Air, Crimson Tide, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor, producer Jerry Bruckheimer had become the go to guy for big budget actioners. You wanted a loud picture with lots of tension, gunplay, and explosions? Call Jerry. Most of the films were short on plot, but that's not what people were interested in. They wanted to be taken away from their lives for two hours and shown things they'd never seen before.
Gore Verbinski was a punk rock guitarist and advertising guy best known for creating the Budweiser frogs. With very little experience as a director, his first two films—Mouse Hunt, The Mexican—were comedies that didn't illicit much of a response on any level. Why choose him to helm an epic adventure on the open seas?
Writing partners Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio became instant Disney legends by penning Aladdin, but went nearly ten years before striking gold again with Shrek. They had worked on action films like Godzilla and The Mask of Zorro, but there resumes hardly screamed Bruckheimer.
For whatever reason, this unsuspecting combination of talent and experience, along with production designer Brian Morris (Pink Floyd: The Wall); art directors James Tocci (Interview with the Vampire), Don Woodruff (The Goonies), and Derek Hill (Three Kings); cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Crimson Tide), editors Arthur Schmidt (Back to the Future), Craig Wood (The Ring), and Stephen Rivkin (Outbreak); casting director Ronna Kress (Moulin Rouge); and a team of hundreds synergized one of the most engaging high adventures for movie lovers everywhere. It energized the summer box office and put into motion one of the most grueling, expensive, and challenging back-to-back sequel shoots in recorded history. But we'll talk about that in the review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
And yet the most important ingredient in this and almost any film is casting. Without Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, you would not have seen this kind of magic. That's not to say everyone else involved in the picture was expendable or replaceable. Hardly. Every masterpiece has an inspiration or catalyst from which its momentum is derived. Captain Jack is the elusive element of artistic genius that makes Pirates work. Because of him, everything else falls into place. Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa has a rival. Keira Knightley as Elizabeth has a bad boy crush. Orlando Bloom as Will has a reluctant father figure. And Jack Davenport as Norrington has a never-ending hemorrhoid. And let's not overlook the brilliant character actors Kevin McNally (Gibbs), Mackenzie Crook (Ragetti), Lee Arenberg (Pintel), and Jonathan Pryce (Governor Swann) who Jack gets to play off.
It was the rare perfect storm of cast and crew coming together at the right time to create something very special. And Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a gem that doesn't lose any of its luster with repeated viewings. Like the attraction itself, this world is so immersive that you are disappointed when it's time to leave. But you're excited by the fact that you can always return again one day to relive the magic.
Presented in 2.35:1, 1080p high definition, this is the film that will get you to purchase a Blu-ray player. Comparing the two versions side-by-side, you'll be astonished at the difference in video and audio quality. The first thing you'll notice is the menu design. Whereas the original had a decidedly uninspired option screen, the Blu-ray version is hosted by the Jolly Roger, who will tease and torment you through the myriad of choices you have available on each of these two discs.
Diving right into the film, the differences are also obvious. Composer Klaus Badelt's rousing score (one that will haunt your memory long after the film ends) takes on an entirely new dimension. The standard DVD presented what at the time was an impressive selection of Dolby 5.1 Surround and a richer DTS 5.1 track, both pale in comparison to the Blu-ray's 48 kHz/24 bit, 5.1 Uncompressed audioscape, which gives twice the depth to Badelt's score; cleaner, crisper dialogue; phenomenal channel separation; and a level of atmospheric details that places you right in the heart of the picture. Just be careful of the volume level, because you are bound to shake a few items off the entertainment center, unnerve the family dog or cat, and anger your neighbors. Standard 5.1 tracks are also available in English, French, and Spanish, but once you experience the power of the Uncompressed version, you'll have zero interest in going back.
While the soundstage is remarkable, the image quality is out of this world. Up until now, it's as if we've been watching films lit by a dim projector bulb in a cold dank basement. Here the light source, color vibrancy, and level of detail have been amplified ten fold. The warmth that comes off the screen makes standard DVD imagery look dead by comparison. The blue seas, the green foliage, and reds of the Royal British Troops are exponentially increased. The difference must be seen to be believed…
Bravo to the Disney engineers for establishing a new industry standard.
In terms of bonus features, there is yet another plus for the Blu-ray version. Disc One has an option called "Scoundrels of the Sea" in which you play the film with pop-up facts about pirate history and lore. While this might not seem like anything you haven't already seen, you'd be wrong. One great feature about Blu-ray is the ability to access your menus while the film is playing. This overlay is exploited to great extent by using your remote to select pop-ups with Aztec gold coins and bank them to create your own personalized documentary that will run at the end of the film. These segments can also be played in two other manners: selected and played individually within the film itself or accessed from the main menu and played all together. The segments are slickly produced montages of film clips and other footage on par with documentaries you might see on The History Channel. It's a feature well worth exploring, and an innovation that can be used to great benefit in Blu-ray releases to come. Disc One also contains audio commentaries by director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp; Jerry Bruckheimer, Keira Knightley, and Jack Davenport; and writers Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolprt, all recorded for the original standard DVD release.
Disc Two has all of the original bonus content including the feature documentary An Epic at Sea (that can be played in segments or as a whole); Fly on the Set which is raw behind the scenes footage of specific shoots (also played in segments or as a whole); Below Deck, an interactive history of pirates; Moonlight Serenade scene progression; 19 deleted and alternate scenes; Blooper reel; Diary of a Ship; Diary of a Pirate; Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color episode where Walt previews the Pirates attraction; Jerry Bruckheimer's Photo Diary; and Image galleries. It also includes the former CD-ROM feature Dead Men Tell No Tales, the history of the attraction; leaves out the Effects Studio, Script Scanner, Storyboard Viewer, and the Virtual Reality Viewer, as well as the attraction concept art gallery (though I'm not sure why). In their place, we have additional featurettes not included on the original release, such as Becoming Captain Jack, Becoming Barbossa, Thar She Blows, The Monkey's Name is Jack, Sneak Attack Animatic, Pirates Around the World, and Spirit of the Ride. You'll need to set aside an entire evening to go through all this material in one sitting, but it's nirvana for Pirates fans.
There is more than enough evidence on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Blu-ray) to prove it's worth its weight in Aztec gold, be it cursed or not. If you're on the fence about investing in a Blu-ray player or a Sony Playstation 3, the syren song of this release should easily pull you in. And if you've decided to wait out the format war for a clear winner, you're missing out on something special.
The only thing Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Blu-ray) can be found guilty of is establishing a new high water mark for home theater. Your living room will never be the same.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary by director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp
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