Commercials for Johnny Depp’s The Rum Diary
consistently ran during Sunday’s NFL games. On the fourth or fifth rotation, my oldest son, P.J., said rather casually, “Johnny Depp
? He’s been in, what, four or five movies now, dad?”
Perhaps more than that, son. At times, it seems like Depp averages four movies a year, though my seven-year-old can be forgiven for not recognizing the prolific star of Sweeney Todd, Dead Man, From Hell, Sleepy Hollow or Chocolat (which I’ll never let him watch … far too sappy).
Depp has made more than a handful of films, however, that, while undoubtedly strange, still qualify as When Can I Watch material. We easily could do a separate series strictly focusing on Depp’s imaginative output. I hope to touch on Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland and Finding Neverland in time. The possibilities are endless.
For a number of reasons, though, Pirates of the Caribbean
seemed like the natural choice this week. The fourth installment, On Stranger Tides
, just reached Blu-ray and DVD (read our review HERE
). Halloween’s also on the horizon, and your kids might be looking for a legitimate fright.
In the end, Depp’s boozy Capt. Jack Sparrow easily is his most popular character -- the one who earned him his first Oscar nomination and continues to fund his bank account. He’s a decent starting point when introducing your children to the actor’s charms. So, let’s commandeer the Black Pearl, walk the plank, spill blood on the treasure of Cortez, and figure out when you can watch Pirates of the Caribbean with your kids.
Red Flags: You Best Start Believing In Ghost Stories, Ms. Turner. You’re In One.
In hindsight, it’s a no-brainer. Four movies and $1.27 billion in domestic ticket sales have proven the Pirates series a success. That’s an understatement. But in 2003, Disney’s decision to convert a third-tier theme park ride into a major motion picture franchise was a massive gamble.
It paid off. Handsomely. The Pirates films, and Depp’s smarmy anti-hero, are ingrained in our pop culture now, and you might want to show your kids where the legend began.
Just remember, parents. Gore Verbinski’s series -- inspired by the dark Disney ride -- isn’t Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and Geoffrey Rush’s haunted Barbossa certainly isn’t the bumbling, cartoonish Capt. Hook.
A pirate’s life, according to screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, consists of murder, mayhem, drinking, swearing, fighting, thieving, carousing … basically all of the things we teach our children not to do. And Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is every bit as bloated and long-winded as its pretentious title suggests. Do you remember the run time? Would you believe 135 minutes?
Verbinski’s period production values, on the whole, are breathtaking, but it might take a moment or two for your kids to adjust to the screenplay’s Ye Olde English. “There are a lot of long words in there, Miss. We're naught but humble pirates,” Barbossa tells Keira Knightley’s loquacious Elizabeth. I feel his pain.
Pirates improves drastically every time Verbinski dodges the dreadful shackles of exposition and kick-starts his action, surfing along on waves of entertaining fight choreography, from Jack and Will’s first sword fight to Elizabeth’s escape from Barbossa’s chambers.
Yet it’s there, at the one-hour mark, that the swashbuckling switches over to supernatural horror, and Pirates goes from being a family adventure inspired by a kiddie ride to a legitimate chiller about haunted boats captained by doomed souls cursed to hell.
It’s a decision made on stranger tides. It means that Verbinski’s Pirates stays true to the mutinous theme-park ride. Yet by amping up the revulsion with filthy, undead pirate villains, it alienates the younger kids who populate Disney’s playgrounds. When the violence on screen escalates, soldiers and pirates are shot, stabbed, blown up, drowned … you name it, Verbinski shows it. Pirates needs its own warning: “You must be this tall to ride this movie.” Because without it, the film’s numerous red flags can cause nightmares.
Green Lights: Not All Treasure is Silver and Gold, Mate.
So why were the Pirates films phenomenally successful?
I’m not certain. They don’t work for me, though I understand that, for those enamored with the lawless genre, it delivered the dirty, dank, waterlogged thrills that have been missing from the big screen for decades. Without using Disney’s Caribbean franchise, name another great modern pirate movie. It’s tough, right?
Verbinski reinvigorated the defunct genre with swashbuckling action sequences, thrilling swordplay, and a drunken tour guide in Depp. Pirates breaks no new ground – well, Depp channeling Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was unexpectedly ingenious – but Verbinski’s workmanlike approach (and Disney’s willingness to spend on some eye-popping effects) helps fill the franchise’s billowing sails.
Something else struck me while revisiting Pirates for the column, though. It might work better with your daughters.
Orlando Bloom and Depp – even under that gaudy makeup – are sexy poster boys of pirate masculinity. Knightley’s a headstrong, feminist role model who exists to remind the men which direction they need to sail. (Her heroic role only increases in sequels Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End). And the romantic subplot, with Elizabeth’s heart belonging to Will even though she’s promised to Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), provides the foundation on which Verbinski and his crew root their supernatural chicanery. I wonder if the Pirates series would’ve sunk without it.
Despite the romance, the intrigue, the adventure and the heroism, Pirates of the Caribbean and its sequels are creepy films aimed at audience members in their teens (and older).
While not quite horror, they’re certainly dark fantasy, with a deliberate nod toward the macabre as Verbinski trots out zombie pirates, skeleton monkeys, and enough violence to fill an Expendables sequel.
Sometimes parents see the Disney logo ahead of a film and assume its safe for any age. But the studio regularly invests in envelope-pushing entertainment, and the Pirates films embrace Verbinski’s adult vision, with lucrative results. Share them with your 12- or 13-year-old, and let your younger kids warm up to the swashbuckling genre in time.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Spy Kids, to name just a few.