Casual cultural observers may be somewhat shocked at learning that “Pirates of the Caribbean” exists above and beyond the pedestrian task of selling McDonalds’ hamburgers. Unfortunately, in the wonderful world of Disney, this tenuous line between movies and marketing promotions has long since been blurred.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater on this one. Despite some obnoxious TV ads that trample the sensibilities of vegetarians, fast-food haters and most of the general viewing public, Disney has created a real winner this time around. Pirates is 140 minutes of non-stop fun, a loveable panorama of witty dialogue, rich costumes, majestic scenery, hot bodies and cool attitudes. If you can only spend two hours at the beach this summer, avoid the sand and the sunburn by checking out this movie.

Johnny Depp steals the show as the all-style-but-no-substance pirate Jack Sparrow, a charming misfit whose ample mix of eye-shadow, gold teeth, dreadlocks and spray-on tanning lotion comes off as something of a cross between Boy George and Bob Marley. Sparrow exists in a constant state of drunken exuberance: he’s a foppish outlaw with a heart of gold and a head that will bluff his way into any scheme that will help him secure large quantities of said shiny yellow element. In one of the movie’s first scenes, the once-mighty captain proudly steers a filthy old rowboat into port. While the decrepit dingy slips completely under the waves just as the one-time captain jumps onto the town’s wooden dock, his unsinkable ego drives the film throughout.

Geoffrey Rush plays the nefarious adversary Captain Barbosa. Like Sparrow, Barbosa favors brains over brawn, bringing a lawyer’s devious mind for details to his job (he is always quick to break brokered agreements because offending parties weren’t quite specific enough in their demands). In presiding over his crew of miscreants, Barbosa is often assisted by a noisy primate who looks suspiciously like the Rally Monkey from the Disney-owned Anaheim Angels. However, if this is the closest we get to outright produce placement in the film itself, I shouldn’t be too critical.

To help turn up the summer sizzle, throw in 18-year-old Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann and Orlando Bloom as William Turner. As the daughter of nobility, Swann is both intelligent and Jennifer-Garner-type-sexy (a determination we’d have easily come to on our own without the numerous close-up cleavage shots). Meanwhile Bloom could swipe Jake Gyllenhaal’s standing as Hollywood’s leading figure for both heterosexual and homosexual lust. Will this chisled blacksmith ultimately win the girl from the other side of the tracks, or will he just settle for the lonely life of a seaman with Sparrow? The conflicts Old Walter has on these issues of sexuality have not apparently been lost on the studio’s younger generation.

A plot? Sure, it all generally makes sense. Treasure. Betrayal. Romance. Evil curses. Living skeletons. You have seen all of this stuff before, although rarely has a film hooked it all together in such an entertaining roller-coaster of action and engaging banter.

To hedge its bets with potentially unreceptive audiences, Pirates even borrows liberally from successful blockbusters of year’s past. I think I heard Celine Dion singing the theme from “Titanic” while Swann struggles to rescue her man entrapment below deck in a sinking ship. Likewise, the ghost of Luke Skywalker makes a thematic cameo when Turner finally learns that his father was the most evil of pirates, not the noble merchant marine he had always been told. Finally, when Captain Sparrow faces an unjust public execution in the movie’s penultimate scene, I can swear he’s getting ready to belt out the words “Freedom.”

But, ultimately this movie re-issues all the best traditions of the Disney experience. Good triumphs over evil (and evil turns out to be a pretty regular fellow, if you just give him a shave, a warm bath and some dental work). Lifelong romantic attractions are actualized. Wit and guile overcome tremendous brute force. Justice prevails over chaos. And, best of all, despite extensive fighting, no one ever really seems to get hurt. “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a perfect fantasy world, one that I want to spend a lot more time watching.

And knowing the Disney franchise, I will probably get a chance at that opportunity somewhere down the line. Can you spell sequel?

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Dir. Gore Verbinski
Stars: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Davenport
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy

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