Saturday, May 21, 2011
Buying back in to Pirates
If you're like me, you were charmed and delighted by the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, then hated the next two to varying degrees. (For the record, the second one is the worst. The third recovers slightly, but not nearly enough.)
Logically, the fourth movie in the series -- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, releasing today -- should represent even more creative bankruptcy and a desperate grab for the remaining possible dollars the franchise can scare up.
Unless there's enough of a pause in the production schedule of the movies that the fourth kind of seems like a reboot, rather than just your typical fourth installment.
The second and the third, after all, were made at the same time, and they made a kajillion dollars at the box office. Given their success, you'd figure Disney would have had Johnny Depp back out on a boat within a week of the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Or maybe even within a week of Dead Man's Chest's massive opening weekend.
But they didn't, content (at least for the time being) with having a trilogy on their hands. Such a quaint notion. Of course it couldn't last.
After a reasonable period (almost like after a spouse dies), you started to hear rumblings that Depp might be willing to get back out there for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean. Then one day you're seeing trailers for it.
It's odd for me to be taking this critical perspective on the series, because really, the delay between the third and fourth Pirates wasn't much longer than industry standard. The first movie came out (and charmed our socks off) in 2003, then Gore Verbinski and his team went hard on production to churn out two sub-par sequels that were released a year apart, in 2006 and 2007. So essentially, the gap between the third and the fourth movie is only one year longer than the gap between the first and second movies. Hardly enough time for us to have forgotten about Captain Jack Sparrow et al.
But the psychological difference is enormous. The big difference in the cinematic landscape between then and now -- though you could argue about exactly when this started -- is that fewer and fewer franchises are considering it an obstacle that it's been five, ten, even 15 years since the last movie in the series. It's almost like we, as a moviegoing public, have collectively given Hollywood permission to tack on as many fourth and fifth installments to series as it wants to tack on. Whereas in the past, we might have been offended by this presumptuousness and demonstrated our ill humor by refusing to buy tickets, now it seems we just want the comfort of familiarity and brand recognition. Even when you're starting to see crooked numbers on the ends of these movie titles (though most of them, like Pirates, cleverly withhold the number from the title to help diminish your sense of the absurdity of it all). Like I said, you could argue that this has always been Hollywood's MO, but I'd counter that it has gotten all the more ridiculous in the past half decade.
So when it was clear that everyone involved in the Pirates movies went home, caught their breath, lay on a beach on the French Riviera for a few months, and then decided to make a Pirates 4, something about that seems to legitimize the process, doesn't it? Funnily enough, this is something you can argue both ways. If you're negatively disposed toward their intentions, you could say that the series was over and done, tied up with a bow, and they ripped the bow off because they just couldn't stand not to make more money on this brand. If you're positively disposed, you'd say that they were not on automatic pilot toward a fourth movie, even though the box office totals nearly demanded it, and only grudgingly did they wade back into the waters, possibly only because they had a really good script and a really good story to tell. (The truth, which I won't bother to look up right now, is probably that Depp originally said he wasn't interested and then ultimately changed his mind.)
But I think there's another reason why some skeptical fans, including myself, are keeping an open mind toward the newest Pirates. Namely, the movie seems to have trimmed some of the excess fat. In this case, the excess fat is probably the two thinnest and most beautiful people in the cast: Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom.
Now, I don't remember a whole lot about what happens in the last two Pirates movies -- in fact, so aimless were the events of Dead Man's Chest that I couldn't even remember what happened after I'd shut off the DVD. But I do remember feeling cumulatively fatigued about the melodramatic ups and downs of the relationship between Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley). It was as if those characters worked for the original movie, then they couldn't figure out what to do with them for the sequels. But their presence was considered key to putting asses in the seats, so they were around, collecting new adventures and wearing our patience thin. I don't think it was the fault of the actors, mind you, who are both quite appealing. I just think there was a general narrative sense that they had overstayed their welcome.
And they're gone from Pirates 4. Again, this could be a case of both actors refusing to participate in further Pirates movies, either being happy with the bow that had been tied on the series, or as unhappy with those movies as I was, and not wanting to sully their names further by making another one. I'm again not bothering to look it up. But the landmark realization here, even if it was happened upon by accident, is that Captain Jack Sparrow is where this series' bread is buttered. Bring Sparrow back, surround him with some promisingly cast newcomers (Penelope Cruz), and return just a face or two among the minor characters (Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa), and you'll have the makings for a fourth Pirates. Heck, you might have the makings for a fifth and a sixth as well.
And more than anything, this movie just looks fun -- fun like the ride that inspired the series in the first place. I can't say for sure that this sense of fun was missing from the trailers of the second and third Pirates, but I feel like it probably was. The set pieces look clever and cheeky, and everyone seems to be having a damn good time.
I think I'm also interested in the controls of the ship being handed over to a new director, Rob Marshall of Chicago fame. Marshall has clearly proven his ability to make a movie that functions as spectacle, and I welcome what he might bring to this movie (and the others that seem sure to follow). I'm a huge Chicago fan, though I guess that's Marshall's only unqualified success -- Nine was only so-so, and I did not see Memoirs of a Geisha. Now, I don't really want Depp and Cruz to break out into song, but I'm not really expecting that to happen. This is not to say Verbinski is a hack -- I really enjoyed his latest movie, Rango, also starring Depp. But three Pirates movies was probably enough for him.
So yeah, here I am, pondering seeing the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie in the theater this weekend. Even though I saw neither of the previous two Pirates movies in the theater, and ended up hating them when I did see them.
Hollywood is a strange place sometimes. I mean, who would have thought that the fifth Fast and the Furious would be the one people seemed to like best?
I guess it's just proof that the quality of a movie is all about who you've got on board for this particular installment, not the baggage carried in by all the movies that might have come before it. What I can't decide is whether it's a good thing that movies have a chance to peak in quality very late in the timeline of their particular franchise. On the one hand, if it's a good movie, it's worth having around in the world. On the other hand, it'll just encourage more studios to send more franchises off into further and further chapters.
Especially when Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides makes at least $80 million this weekend. And possibly more like $100 million.