It’s fair to say that few recent movie franchises have straddled downright brilliance and oddly bland with quite the style that the cinematic adventures of Jack Sparrow have managed. Storming out of the blocks with the quite superb Curse Of The Black Pearl, the franchise then employed two sequels that were filmed back to back, which both made serious cash, yet each managed to disappoint.
Still, retrospect has a habit of being kind, and this lavish three-disc collection from Disney brings together all the films in 1080p glory. So let’s take a look.THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
Films based on theme park rides wasn’t much of a genre until Disney came along with its first Pirates Of The Caribbean flick, and it’s a bit of a revelation in several ways. Firstly, it made a hugely entertaining and very successful film out of pirates. This may not sound much now, but consider the last major attempt to bring pirates to the big screen – the ill-fated and generally ill Cutthroat Island – and it’s a subject matter that has been given wide berth ever since. Then there’s the sheer Saturday afternoon fun of it. In the midst of a puddle of blockbusters that either took themselves too seriously, or laden themselves down with effects, Curse Of The Black Pearl was an absolute blast. Could it even be a Raiders of the Lost Ark moment for a new generation, a film so dedicated to action, adventure and downright fun that it’s borderline impossible to resist?
And then there’s the casting. Johnny Depp often gets the plaudits here, and he is in his element as Captain Jack Sparrow. It’s a ballsy performance, that snared Depp an Oscar nomination, but don’t forget that he’s anchored (see what we did there?) by a brilliant, scenery-chewing Geoffrey Rush, the ever-strong Jonathan Pryce and an underrated turn by Jack Davenport. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley aren’t particularly special here, but they inhabit their roles well enough.
Curse Of The Black Pearl also benefits massively from controlled direction by Gore Verbinski (previously best known for the likes of The Mexican and the underrated Mouse Hunt), and a screenplay that feels like it’s been edited down to a suitably tight level. Things would never be this good for the franchise again.
The disc the film comes on manages to match the main feature too, with stunning presentation that’s common across all the discs in this set. The picture quality is quite brilliant, glistening with detail and coping with the broad contrast of colours extraordinarily well. On our 52” test display, we’ve not seen many films that are better. Likewise, the audio is also outstanding, delivering terrific punch and a wonderfully wide soundstage.
The extras package is comprehensive, with Disney sidestepping the mistakes made by the likes of Fox, and cramming in the features from the very strong special edition DVD. There’s no lack of things to mooch through. That said, the omission of the commentary tracks from the US release is a sad oversight.
On the upside, there’s nearly 40 minutes of the Making of Pirates, and another 35 minutes looking at how various scenes were shot. Neither of these are outstanding, too often veering towards the press kit over substance, but they do throw up enough of interest to warrant giving them a spin. Of the remaining featurettes, you also get a pair that then focus on Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa.
DEAD MAN’S CHEST
This, more than At World’s End, was the film where Pirates really got it wrong for this reviewer. Running to a bloated two and a half hours, and bringing in Bill Nighy as Davy Jones to take the place of Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, it does in retrospect have slightly more in its corner that I believed first time round. The effects, particularly on the aforementioned Jones, are brilliant, and there are some exciting set pieces that match the scale of the production. Furthermore, the ending is really, really good, and I distinctly recall it leaving me desperately looking forward to Pirates 3.
But there are all sorts of problems. Long sequences that fail to particularly interest, the sidelining of supporting characters who were so interwoven with the original film’s success, and an abject failure to generate anywhere near the same levels of entertainment. Surely, Johnny Depp battles gamely on, but much more of the film is hung around his, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom’s shoulders, and this is not to its benefit. It’s no disaster, but it is a long way away from the magic of The Curse Of The Black Pearl.
Once again though, the disc is strong, and the presentation of the film is just excellent. The picture is outstanding, delivering stunning levels of detail and a real vibrancy, and it’s matched toe-to-toe by an all-round audio mix that’ll leave your speakers panting for breath.
The extras here pretty much match the US release disc, albeit without the commentary track that they got over there. What you do get is an excellent production diary feature that runs to over an hour, and is far more interesting than you might initially suspect. Even the shorter feature dealing with pre-production has enough nuggets to warrant giving it a spin. Further featurettes includes ones that take in Jack Sparrow (in an interactive extra which you can access piecemeal by clicking around, or all in one go), the effects work that went into creating the stunning Davy Jones, and a collection of shorter pieces that tend to veer more towards press kit fodder.
AT WORLD’S END
Finally, we come to the longest and most troubled of the films, although I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that I do prefer it to Dead Man’s Chest. That’s not to say that I had any idea what was going on, and I defy anyone to sit through the near-three hour running time and be able to adequately explain the wildly diverse narratives that appear to be randomly chucked at the screen. Throw in the fact that Geoffrey Rush is wasted, and that the emphasis is thrown more than ever onto Bloom and Knightley, and the omens aren’t good. Heck, Captain Jack doesn’t turn up for what seems like ages, and then there are loads of him, for no clear reason.
What I admire about the film though is that come the last act, it’s given up all hope of making sense, and instead focuses on throwing whatever’s left in its bank account at the screen. And it’s where I had the most fun with At World’s End. It’s a messy, flawed and at times quite arduous film, but the scale of the battle sequences near the end are a home cinema revelation, and at worst I was moderately entertained.
It perhaps goes without saying now that the presentation of the film is staggering, with one favourite demo moment being a wide shot of the ocean that picks up the sparkle of the sun across the waves just brilliantly. Seriously: with the audio and video work done on the Pirates trilogy, Disney has set a benchmark standard for presentation that’s going to take a lot of beating.
Extra features? There are lots of them again, although once more, no commentary. You do, however, get interesting features dissecting the Maelstrom (arguably the most impressive scene in the whole film), production design and a brief featurette following Keith Richards. But there’s nowhere near the meaty substance to these and the other featurettes on the disc that you get with the previous two films.
It should be noted that across all three films, you do get some interesting high definition-exclusive extras. At World’s End has perhaps the best, which again digs into the Maelstrom scene, albeit in more depth.
By shopping around, it’s possibly to pick up the Pirates trilogy for around £45, which for a high definition package isn’t too bad. Across the board the discs are very strong, giving a ruthless workout to any half-decent home cinema rig. The films are more challenging, with the first remaining one of the best blockbusters of recent times, and the follow-ups falling some way short. But with some judicious use of the remote control’s fast forward button, there’s an argument that Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are best enjoyed in the comfort of your own home.
Now? Disney is working on the fourth. Let’s just hope the lessons of the last two have been learnt!
The Films:The Discs: