It's anybody's guess what will encourage more first-time Blu-ray users--Sony's slashing their main-line player to $499 (half of what the industry sell-price had been), or Disney's recent release of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Dead Man's Chest." Or maybe the combination will win a few converts. I can tell you this much: Once you see "Pirates of the Caribbean" on Blu-ray, you're not going to want to watch it any other way.
Seeing the Blu-ray version of "The Curse of the Black Pearl" on my 16x9 HD television in all it's pristine glory wasn't exactly as stunning as watching "Dead Man's Chest" in big-screen digital presentation aboard the Disney cruise ship Wonder, but it was an impressive second-best. The frames seemed brighter and the colors truer, while the amount of detail--especially in those moonlit bluish, hazy sequences in which we see the accursed crew working as skeletons--was nothing short of astounding. I began to notice more of the nifty CGI movements of those skeletons and better appreciated their flesh-one-minute, bone-the-next transitions because of the striking clarity and sharpness.
Johnny Depp was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but lost to Sean Penn ("Mystic River"). Watching features on how he came up with the character of Capt. Jack Sparrow all on his own, then seeing him pull off an incredibly entertaining performance that blends quirkiness, comedy and action, makes me think that maybe Academy voters should have watched every pirate movie that ever came before it in order to appreciate just what Depp brought not just to this picture, but to an entire genre. He's no Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, John Payne, or Burt Lancaster, that's for sure. Every swashbuckling hero from Hollywood's pirate past has been dashing, daring, good looking, carefree, and heroic, despite being a bit of a scoundrel. The typical swashbuckler was the bad boy that good girls fell for--a basically decent fellow who fell into piracy because of circumstances beyond his control, or because the good guys weren't so good after all.
Depp says that he wanted to seize the opportunity to invent a completely new pirate character, and he certainly did with Capt. Jack Sparrow, who's a card-carrying anti-hero. Sparrow loves rum too much, he's sneaky and devious, he'd run just as soon as fight, his personal hygiene leaves something to be desired, and he keeps getting slapped by women he's wronged. As for the pirate code, "It's more of a guideline, really." Sparrow, whom Depp envisioned as a modern-day Rastafarian, has braided hair with as many trinkets woven into it as Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist who partially inspired the look. And if you're wondering why Sparrow lurches from side to side, throws out those uncertain looks, and seems freaked out by the slightest movement, it's because Depp envisioned him as having "perpetual sea legs." Right.
"You're possibly the worst pirate I've ever heard of," an officer of the King says to Capt. Sparrow. "Ahh, but you have heard of me," Sparrow replies. And that's really the impressive effect that Depp's nouveau pirate produces. He's perhaps the most memorable of all--and that includes Fairbanks' "Sinbad," Flynn's "Captain Blood" and Lancaster's "Crimson Pirate." In "Pirates," he also finds a strong villain to complement him. As Barbossa, the "bad" pirate who led the mutiny against him, Geoffrey Rush gives us a character that's as deliciously black-hearted as Robert Newton's Long John Silver or Blackbeard. Add the dashing Orlando Bloom as blacksmith-turned-pirate Will Turner and Keira Knightley as the gentrified Elizabeth Swann, and you have a cast whose personalities are strong enough to hold their own against each other and against all the eye-popping (yes, some of it literal) special effects.
This is one movie where it's actually nice to have explosionmeister Jerry Bruckheimer onboard. Between the amazing CGI work and the big-time pyrotechnics that seem to float Bruckheimer's boat, it's no surprise that "Pirates" was nominated for an Oscar (losing to "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"). The plot pays homage to the rollicking sea adventures that came before it, but also spins off into new territory. There are mutineers, Aztec gold, a curse on those who grabbed it, a governor's daughter who's fascinated by pirates, a blacksmith who's really a pirate's son, a British officer who wants to hang the pirates and marry the governor's daughter, and the flamboyant Jack Sparrow listing and lurching in almost every scene, a pirate captain who seems perpetually in need of a ship. And for comic relief? A ship's monkey and two less-than-intelligent pirates (Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook), one of whom has an artificial eye that keeps popping out. Somehow, it all comes together, and with all the flair and rousing adventure of those original B-movie swashbucklers. The only fair criticism that anyone seems to have leveled against this film is that it runs a bit long. But harrrr, what's time to a pirate?
Blu-ray ratchets up the detail a notch or two, and you can really tell the difference in those murky scenes where things are still clear, somehow. You also really notice during scenes when the Caribbean is so beautifully blue-green, or in close-ups where HD detail is starting to become a factor in make-up. The 1080p picture is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it looks stunning on this 50GB disc.
I've always been impressed by uncompressed PCM, and so it didn't surprise me that the English PCM uncompressed 48kHz/24-bit audio was pretty spectacular. It's a really clean, crisp, and rich soundtrack that makes the alternate soundtracks (English, French, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital) seem flat by comparison. They're not, of course, but that's the effect that PCM produces. What's interesting is that Buena Vista is including information on two inserts that speak to connections. One, "Welcome to the (Blu-ray) Revolution," says "in order to enjoy the Blu-ray experience at its best, connect your HDMI player output to your HDTV and your receiver and set your audio on the feature to the LPCM uncompressed track. If your receiver does not have HDMI capabilities but has a multichannel input, you can still enjoy uncompressed audio by connecting the discrete analog outputs from your player to the receiver." Another (advertising partner?) insert tells you that if you're to get the best possible Blu-ray experience you should use a Monster Cable for HDMI, which offer "guaranteed compatibility and maximum bandwidth for the highest definition picture and sound." You're also admonished not to "forget "Dirty" AC power can degrade your HD picture. For the clarity you crave, hook up your system with Monster Power, featuring patented Clean Power filtering."
Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Have you got 13 hours to spare? That's what it'll take you to get through all these extras. Credit Disney/Buena Vista for coming up with a two-disc set that has all the bonus features from the DVD, and then some, all housed in a blue keep-case that's no bigger than the single-disc ones. Disc one features THREE commentaries, the most entertaining and informative featuring Verbinski and Depp. Many commentaries seem like tread-carefully affairs or mutual admiration societies, so it's refreshing to hear Depp tell how he really feels about Verbinski's direction. Another track features Knightley, Jack Davenport (who plays Norrington), and Bruckheimer. There's more frivolity on this track, but be warned that it's scene-specific, rather than a full commentary. A third commentary track features screenwriters Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Jay Wolpert, and Stuart Beattie. What's most interesting about this track is their remarks concerning the screenplay's development. But "Scoundrels of the Sea" is the option that shows the direction that Blu-ray bonus materials are headed. This pop-up trivia option also incorporates an element where you can "bank" material based on your interest by pressing "enter." After the movie, whatever you banked will be deposited into a documentary that will play only those things that you've highlighted. Nifty, huh? This interactive feature runs on BD-Java and was developed and produced by Disney and programmed by Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory, a key technology provider for BD-Java. Panasonic also handled the AVC (Advanced Video Coding) video compression direct from digital intermediates, and they put together the Disc 1 menu that's are "hosted" by the Jolly Roger skull.
Then there's the 25GB Disc Two, which has a wealth of materials that, in typical Disney fashion, are organized into sections that are easy to access or play-all. In a grouping titled "An Epic at Sea: The Making of Pirates" there are eight featurettes on the actors, locations, production design, ships of the Caribbean, make-up and wardrobe, the art of sword fighting, special effects, and the film's premiere. In a grouping titled "Fly on the Set" we get behind-the-scenes peeks on the town attack, Tortuga, the blacksmith shop, the cave, Jack's hanging, the dock, the tavern, and the plank. Finally, in a catch-all category termed "Additional Features" there are more substantial entries on Becoming Captain Jack, Becoming Barbossa, Thar She Blows, The Monkey's Name is Jack, Sneak Attack Animatic, Pirates Around the World, Spirit of the Ride, Dead Men Tell No Tales, Diary of a Ship, Photo Diary/Bruckheimer, Blooper Reel, Below Deck: An Interactive History of Pirates, Moonlight Serenade scene progression, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and Image galleries.
There are also Easter Eggs on ship-to-ship animatic, a Japanese TV commercial, Keith Richards' remarks about Depp and the movie, and a pirate's cave construction time lapse. Some of the features are pretty random, especially the vintage (1967-68) materials that tell about the history of the theme park ride that inspired this film. They're unintentionally funny, but offer rare footage of Disneyland and some interesting behind-the-scenes shop work. I, for one, was surprised to hear them talk about "animatronics" as a coined word to describe what they were doing way back in 1968.
Rounding out the extras are 19 deleted and alternate scenes. And if someone gets the bright idea to expand this 143-minute film by adding those scenes to create an Extended Cut, I'll be the first in line . . . to complain. There's nothing here that's so extraordinary that it would warrant making a long movie longer.
The Black Pearl is a fully-functional working ship that director Gore Verbinski had built, and location filming in the Dominican Republic, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines also adds to the sense of authenticity. The actors are true personalities that really sell their characters, the costumes are wonderful, the set design is superb, and the sound mixing and cinematography really support the robust tension of the film. "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" seems to get better with age, and as a long-time lover of pirate movies, I have to say that it now strikes me as one of the best of the genre.