Is the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film franchise a sinking ship?


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This week, we’re taking a look at four major trilogies from this decade that are looking to add a fourth film despite substantial challenges -- not least among those challenges the skepticism of moviegoers who may wonder whether some of these Hollywood vehicles are running on empty. You can find the other three installments of the series right here.


Pirates of the Caribbean

The story so far: Back in 2003, in the months before the release of the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film, few observers thought the venture was seaworthy. It was a $135-million movie based on a Disneyland ride -- a crass approach to filmmaking that had given the world the furry failure of ‘The Country Bears’ just a year earlier. The movie was also a pirate film -- a genre that went out of style in Errol Flynn’s lifetime and produced the cringe-worthy flop ‘Cutthroat Island’ less than a decade earlier. The star, meanwhile, was Johnny Depp, an actor who had proved himself too quirky for the American moviegoing public (he had starred in only one film, ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ that topped $100 million in U.S. box office). On paper, it looked like madness, but, of course, it turned out to be a treasure map. Depp’s bleary rogue, Jack Sparrow, would become a signature character in modern popcorn-film history (and earn Depp an Academy Award nomination) while director Gore Verbinski tapped into a rollicking mix of adventure, supernatural thrills and comedy. The first film pulled in $654 million worldwide. The sequel did even better -- it’s $1.06 billion worldwide made it the highest-grossing film of 2006. A third film in 2007 brought in $961 million. A fourth installment, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,’ is due in 2011.

The challenge: There are plenty. The first film was fresh, fun and unexpected, but the franchise started to get creaky as soon as it came back for a second voyage. The third film was oddly long and labored -- didn’t this franchise start as a swashbuckling lark? -- and left critics sounding as though they’d found a drowning victim in the theater aisle. Claudia Puig of USA Today called it a ‘bloated, overwrought and convoluted three-hour misfire.’ Still, money was made, and Disney wanted to keep this ship afloat, so a new approach was taken with this fourth film: The studio secured the rights to ‘On Stranger Tides,’ a 1987 novel by fantasy author Tim Powers that weaves a tale of pirates, voodoo and the fountain of touth, making this the first adapted work in the series. That move was made (presumably) to save the next film from the loopy and confusing plot threads of the last installment. That’s all to the good, but there’s also the question of who will replace Verbinski, who decided that after three films it was time to go ashore. Rob Marshall (‘Chicago’) is the name that is everywhere, but his hiring has not been publicly confirmed by the studio as I type this. Really, though, the more pressing worry: What would ‘Pirates’ do if its jolly anti-hero Jack Sparrow decided at this late date to abandon ship?

The status: The plan is to start filming in the spring (that according to an MTV interview with costar Geoffrey Rush). The venture got off to a sunny start when Depp, proving himself a real trouper, showed up at a Disney convention in Anaheim in his full Sparrow costume and makeup to promote the film. Depp and Dick Cook, the longtime Disney studio executive who was a key player in the ‘Pirates’ franchise, smiled, hugged and mugged for the cameras and fans. Then, just days later, Cook was kicked to the curb by his corporate bosses. Depp, in an interview with Claudia Eller of the Los Angeles Times, said he was ‘shocked and very sad’ and admitted that there was ‘a crack in my enthusiasm’ for the planned ‘Pirates’ sequel.

The prediction: Depp is in an interesting spot here. He does a lot of work with Disney (‘Alice in Wonderland’ is now in post-production, and Disney officials say the ‘Lone Ranger’ project is still out there on the horizon line) and I would imagine that, contractually, it would be very difficult for him to walk away from ‘Pirates’ at this point too. (If he does walk away, it would be a thunderbolt announcement that would fracture his relations with the studio and cause a great deal of embarrassment for Disney CEO Bob Iger, the fellow who pushed Cook out onto the plank.) Depp showed himself to be a team player by dressing up as Sparrow for the aforementioned promotional event, but he also flashed his maverick spirit by publicly siding with the long-gone Cook. From my vantage point, that suggests he might honor his commitment to a fourth ‘Pirates’ voyage and then set sail in a new direction.

-- Geoff Boucher

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