One of the things I've always enjoyed about Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride is that I'm never sure who I'm supposed to root for. Is it the pirates? The inhabitants of the burning town? The dog that guards the jailhouse keys?
Answer: none of the above. The real protagonist of the attraction is anarchy, for riding it means giving in to the free-floating lawlessness of which Uncle Walt was so fond. That spirit is faithfully conveyed throughout "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," a loopy seafaring adventure in which who comes out on top is less important than how much swash gets buckled.
The story is put into motion by the scurvy crew of the title vessel, buccaneers who once helped themselves to a cursed treasure and have lived to rue the consequences. Now a floating cabal of the damned, they arrive in the seaside hamlet of Port Royal determined to reclaim their lost souls. The plan they devise holds dramatic ramifications for all the good townfolk -- including the upstanding governor (Jonathan Pryce), his willful daughter (Keira Knightley) and even the local blacksmith (Orlando Bloom), an orphan of the waves who has his own reasons to resent anything that washes up on shore bearing the skull and crossbones.
Appearing at roughly the same time is Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a down-on-his-luck sea dog who is either the best or the worst pirate in existence -- depending on which day you catch him. Jack has a score to settle with the Black Pearl's treacherous skipper (Geoffrey Rush), and it isn't long before all the involved parties are chasing each other around the deep blue in ever-tightening circles of revenge and desperation.
Rarely serious yet not expressly a comedy, Pirates successfully replicates the hammy cinematics of a Disney theme-park ride. The art direction is first-rate -- lots of atmospheric fog blowing across old-world architecture -- and the cast proves eternally game. Depp plays the foppish Jack like Don Juan DeMarco channeling Dudley Moore: All limp wrists and slurred sweet talk, he teeters about the screen in suggestion of a perpetual rum glow.
He's so married to his mumbling caricature, in fact, that you occasionally wonder what the hell he's talking about. And the plot tends to flounder around like a stunned -- er, flounder. But structural integrity isn't the point of this movie, which lives to celebrate the joyous mayhem of life on the high seas. Allegiances are formed and dissolved with lightning speed, the combatants double- and triple-crossing each other until the line between hero and cur vanishes completely. In the end, there's nothing to do but throw up your hands and surrender to the whole unruly affair. Hoist high the Jolly Roger, it's a pirate's life after all.