Disney’s Commodification and “Closure” of Pirates of the Caribbean

Anne H Petersen. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

In a 1967 promotional film for the newest additions to Disneyland—Pirates of the Caribbean and New Orleans Square—Walt Disney carefully explains the design of the ride to a young “imagineering” employee. Disney describes the manner in which “all these characters will be life-size, and life-like in their movement” as the pirates discover the town’s rum supplies, dunk the mayor in the well, and observe as women of the pillaged village are auctioned off to the highest bidder. As Disney emphasizes, “anything’s possible at Disneyland”—referring not only to the animation of the various models into life-like characters but also to the fact that pirates, mythical and magical in themselves, may be embodied and asserted, in the most Disney-of-ways, as history.

Pirates of the Caribbean, for all its imagineering, is “based” on what Disney and others hope the public to take as historical fact. Situated beside New Orleans Square, itself an “historically accurate” model of nineteenth-century New Orleans, the unstated yet implicit message of Pirates of the Caribbean is clear: The ride is “magical,” but, like many others in the park, it is also based on history. As Disney states in the promotional film, the ride will “take [visitors] back into the days of the past, the pirates, you know, when the whole Caribbean area was full of pirates, and they were always sacking things.” Significantly, as Disney speaks, the camera focuses on a close-up of the imagineering representative. Her face is young and innocent, and she eagerly smiles and nods with each word. Here the audience may be interchanged with the young woman—when Disney playfully asserts, “You believe in Pirates, of course,” we nod and reply, “oh yes,” right along with her. This interchange exemplifies what Baudrillard has termed “the Disneyland simulacrum”—specifically, the fact that Disney’s historic re-creation is not only faulty but recreates a history that never truly existed.

To examine both the park and the ride as such, we must first acknowledge that the faux history of each Disney ride serves as an open avenue for capitalism. In Disneyland, history and fantasy intertwine to create commodities rooted in society’s psyche. Just as Snow White was initially successful due to the ubiquity of the tale among the common folk, so too is Pirates of the Caribbean immediately palatable for its link to, as Walt so suggestively describes, “the days of the past, the pirates, you know.” Although piracy, mutiny, and rogue sailors may have certainly existed, the manner in which they are displayed in the ride—as swashbuckling caricatures, bungling and gluttonous—is more a function of exposure to other media, not to factual pirate accounts. Whether Robert Louis Stevenson novels or Errol Flynn films, the ride clearly adheres to Baudrillard’s description of the progression of the modern image: “it is the reflection of basic reality, it masks and perverts a basic reality, it masks the absence of a basic reality,” and thus, as in its present form, “it bears no relation to a reality whatever.”

The Pirates ride, like the rest of Disney, is a fake history. So what? The real question is how modern-day Disney, the uber-corporation, transformed an amusement park ride into the second highest grossing film of 2003, extending that success to the 2006 and 2007 sequels, and successfully commodifying one of the last unsynergized aspects of Disneyland. In folklorian terms, the answer is straightforward: Disney simply “closed” the text. In an interesting twist on McLuhan’s ballyhooed catchphrase, the medium has indeed proved the message: A switch of the medium (from amusement park ride to a fully fleshed-out film) effectively cemented the “message” of Pirates of the Caribbean, closing a text once “open” to myriad interpretations into a singular “closed” rendition. With a static message and a concrete text, Disney could effectively commodify and capitalize upon its narrative, its characters, and its sequels.

Disney: Land of the Closed Text

Disney’s method of commodification is characterized by its synergistic relish: Each storyline, movie, or character is vertically integrated through the tower of Disney mediums. The Lion King, for example, has a Broadway stage adaptation, numerous straight-to-video sequels, an immensely successful soundtrack featuring Elton John, and a healthy DVD sales rate, to say nothing of the products, toys, costumes, and games that boast the Lion King and Disney name. The Disney parks, beginning with Disneyland but now expanded to include Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland Park, Euro Disney, and Hong Kong Disneyland, serve as the capstone of Disney synergy. Hunt and Frankenberg observe, “You have seen the films, are familiar with the cartoon characters, and know that their trials and tribulations are humorous, and will eventually resolve into happy endings. You expect (and know that an omnipresent but unobtrusive management intends) a similar ending from the thrills and spills of your own visit.” This certainly holds for the majority of Disneyland attractions: Rides reenact The Song of the South (“Splash Mountain”), Aladdin (“Aladdin’s Oasis”), Pinocchio (“Pinocchio’s Daring Journey”), Alice in Wonderland (“Mad Tea Party”), The Wind in the Willows (“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”), and Snow White (“Snow White’s Scary Adventures”), plus many, many more. As Jason Sperb notes, each is a “commodified, homogenized version, if any version, of its now distant … relative.” Accordingly, these rides simultaneously benefit from and rely on audience foreknowledge of the “plot” of each ride. If each of these films are themselves “Disneyfied” (i.e., Americanized, stream-lined, and lacking in nuance) versions of the original myths, folktales, and fairytales from which they sprung, then the rides represent a third removal from the original source.

In this way, altering the medium of representation—from oral tradition to recorded fairytale to Disney cartoon to Disneyland ride—likewise alters the message, not only through technological advances but by “closing” the text. Folklorists consider a closed text as “one that carefully develops details and connections, leaving readers or viewers little chance for active participation and interpretation.” Whereas an open text, such as an oral narrative, is characterized by a dynamicism that allows cultural variation and nuance appropriate to time and location, the closed text remains constant. Western oral histories and fairy tales were first recorded in the seventeenth century, when Giovanni Strapola and Charles Perrault first collected their tales, famously followed by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, amongst others. In recording the narratives, these “editors” affected the first level of textual closure—their versions of Snow White, of Hansel and Gretel, and of Cinderella became the accepted, static norm.

Disney further closed the text through its classic screen adaptations. In addition to neutralizing potentially offensive elements and refiguring the plot line to mesh with Disney specifications (the struggle between good and evil; narrative closure with heteronormative coupling), the fact that the cartoons are fleshed out—given a voice, demeanor, and body—further limits potential interpretations of the text. Moral nuance, ambiguity, and personal interpretation are eliminated in favor of a clear, solid, universally palatable product. In a closed text, particularly in the Disney universe, there is no need for imagination—the Imagineering team does it for you! The face of the heroine, the look of the forest, the scowl of the evildoer—all created and proliferated to the point of unquestioned cultural acceptance. Put bluntly, Snow White’s face is the same in every country across the world.

The Disney amusement ride, however, represents the closure of the original open text. Storylines, character arcs, and emotional development are reduced to an eight-minute tour of loosely interpreted vignettes, animatronic creatures spouting clichéd catchphrases—not from the original text, but from the Disney-appropriated film. A dynamic image eludes commodification—it’s difficult to make a t-shirt of a creature that is interpreted differently by each audience member—but a static one may be readily packaged and purchasable. Dolls, t-shirts, hats, and games, with the same images and taglines, may be sold at the park gift shop or thousands of other outlets around the world. This not only ups Disney’s profits but increases the proliferation of the Disney-generated image, reinforcing its status for generations to come.

The ride is three times removed from the original open text, at best a skeletal allusion to a tale that once spoke to genuine societal anxieties. Rides differ very little from park to park—whether at the Magic Kingdom in Florida or Tokyo Disneyland, the faces, gags, and sound effects remain, for the most part, consistent. As the Disney catchphrase persists, “it’s a small world after all,” and the small world of Disney’s cinematic and theme park creation is one where rights and wrongs are universally applicable, where beauty that is “snow white” endures, and love and marriage present themselves as the ultimate (and necessary) solution.

Pirates of the Caribbean, however, demands a reexamination of Hunt and Frankenberg’s Disney park thesis. Purportedly sprouted from Walt’s own imagination, Pirates differs from the traditional funnel model of folklore-fairytale-film closure. Granted, as previously discussed, Disney subliminally associates the ride with historical events in the colonization-era Caribbean. Instead of European fairy tales, the texts that the ride works to close are general Pirate narratives—taken from or inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson, Davy Jones and his locker, and Errol Flynn movies (from the 1930s and 1940s) that were still very much in the public consciousness at the time of the ride’s opening in 1967. The link, however, was tenuous: Without a clear Disney film or product to serve as referent, Disney was severely limited in its marketing of the ride and the idea that supported it.

In 2002, The Disney Corporation attempted to solve a similar problem with another ride—Country Bear Jamboree—by creating a live-action feature to flesh out the attraction. The film, The Country Bears (Hastings, 2002), was a financial failure. Moira McDonald of the Seattle Times elaborates on its downfall: “You might reasonably expect, from the mighty Disney, that the big-screen bears might be kind of cutting-edge, with stunningly realistic digital effects. Um, no. It’s guys in bear suits, lumbering around with their big heads and synthetic looking hair, with dubbed voices chiming in from a sound booth.” Despite the vocal talents of Haley Joel Osment, Christopher Walken, and a number of stars from the music industry (Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, and Willie Nelson among others), the animatronic bears of the film are embarrassingly awkward and passé. The film failed to fulfill Disney’s synergistic goals, hampering the effort to further commodify the ride and its characters. Nevertheless, creating a film with an explicit connection to the ride remained the clearest solution to the dearth of Pirates commercial synergy. The idea for a full-length, live-action film was originally pitched in 1992 and languished for over a decade in stages of predevelopment—until Jerry Bruckheimer entered the picture.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is the closest that Hollywood gets to a magic-maker. He first gained attention as the “Mr. Outside” to producing partner Don Simpson’s “Mr. Inside”—working with directors Tony Scott and Michael Bay, they created a succession of tremendously successful, blow-’em-up films, paragons of contemporary masculinity: Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Days of Heaven, and Bad Boys. Starting in 1994, Bruckheimer and Simpson began producing films for Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures, both owned and run by Disney. Over the course of the next two years, they shepherded projects as various as The Ref (Demme, 1994, Touchstone Pictures), Crimson Tide (Bay, 1995, Hollywood Pictures), Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995, Hollywood Pictures), and The Rock (Bay, 1996, Hollywood Pictures). While these films generally garnered negative reviews, they made a tremendous amount of money: As just one example, The Rock, with a production budget of $85 million, grossed $335 million internationally, with $134 million of that domestic. When Simpson unexpectedly passed away in 1996, Bruckheimer continued to produce blockbusters for Touchstone: Con Air (West, 1997), Armageddon (Bay, 1998), Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998), Gone in 60 Seconds (Sena, 2000), Coyote Ugly (McNally, 2000), Remember the Titans (Yakin, 2001), and many others.

Bruckheimer’s production success may be attributed to his firm, particular control of his pictures with extreme attention to detail. Instead of interfering on the set, he does most of his work in postproduction, tinkering with score, narrative, and length. He refers to himself as “the audience”—the typical Joe Schmoe “guy with his hand in the popcorn.” The decisions he makes, and thus the films he produces, are meant to cater to those very tastes—movies that are the perfect mix of fun, adventure, humor, entertainment, and emotion, without anything that’s too complex, alienating, or sophisticated. There is very little that is subtle about a Bruckheimer picture: The emotions, narrative turns, and explosions are exaggerated, designed to inflate the films’ profits. The international success of his films (Armageddon, for example, grossed $553 million worldwide on a production budget of $140 million) speaks to the international resonance of the Bruckheimer picture: Because the love stories, action, plot lines, and conclusion are all writ large, they are easily translatable. Like a cartoon, a silent film, or a Disney theme ride, they are equally palatable to a middle-aged middle-American and a Japanese teenager. Ultimately, Bruckheimer is the quintessential Disney producer: The vision, style, and success of his productions mesh seamlessly with the Disney business and entertainment philosophy. He “closes” the text; Disney synergizes it; audiences buy it.

Pearl Harbor (Bay, 2001) was Bruckheimer’s first hint of a misstep. While the film ended up grossing $449 million internationally, its $140 million production budget was disquieting to Disney. Its original $145 million budget was, at the time, the largest approved prefilming; Bruckheimer and Bay gave up their $4 million salaries (in return for a cut of the profits) to keep the budget down; and Bay quit the project four times over various disputes. Then came Bad Company (Schumacher, 2002), a buddy flick starring Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock, recouping only $65 million of its $70 million budget. When it came to Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney was, with good reason, wary. With the recent failure of The Country Bears and Bruckheimer’s big budget stumbles, Pirates was a risk—especially because it would require filming on location, in period costume, with massive amounts of computer-generated image (CGI) work in postproduction. But Bruckheimer was locked in a five-film production deal with Disney, and regardless of his missteps, he was still the best producer for a big-budget, bombastic job—in the words of Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Bruckheimer is “our bread and butter,” Disney’s “home run hitter.”

Bruckheimer handpicked director Gore Verbinski and recruited heartthrobs Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom (fresh off his role as Legolas in The Lord of the Rings) for the picture. According to the producer-commentary included with the Curse of the Black Pearl DVD, Bruckheimer desired a director who could handle what he viewed as the two main themes of the ride: fear and humor. At first glance, the Pirates ride is rather horrific, as grotesque-looking pirates plunder, capture, and eventually burn an entire village. One might assume an underlying fear of rape, torture, and general debauchery. But for the ride—indeed, for Disney in general—any such potential anxieties are completely negated through humor and caricature. The Pirates are dumpy, disfigured, and while ostensibly “dangerous,” they are clearly not a serious threat. As evidenced in past Disney productions, from 101 Dalmations (Geronimi et al., 1966) to The Lion King (Allers and Minkoff, 1992), such villains are prime sources of humor. Verbinski, best known for the Budweiser frog commercials, fear-fest The Ring (2002), and self-declared “family classic” Mousehunt (1997), possessed the genuine, innovative sense of both humor and fear that Bruckheimer viewed as essential to a successful adaptation.

Pirating the Pirate Film

Ostensibly, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl indeed offers a “closed” and classical Disney product: Good (the British, Will Turner) triumphs over Evil (the cursed pirates); the heroine (Keira Knightly) is, in current Disney style, both beautiful and adventurous but ends up in the arms of her true love. The film overtly references and pays homage to the ride in a number of places, allowing audience members to easily draw associations between the two—the exact sort of synergy Disney desires. This may be largely attributed to Bruckheimer, whose producing style ensured that the film’s end vision would mesh with the ride and Disney’s underlying intentions for the production. With that said, Bruckheimer may have inadvertently paved the path for the film’s innovation and subversion. Enabling Depp, Verbinksi, and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to essentially “pirate” the pirate movie, Bruckheimer set the stage for the filmic coup that is Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Here one is reminded of the dual definition of the word pirate: a sea-faring historical figure who steals and plunders, of course, but also, in its contemporary usage, one who makes or uses another’s work without authorization. Following Depp’s lead, the director and screenwriters fashioned a film that indeed provides a synergistic compliment to the Disney ride but adds character ambiguity, a troubled story arc, antiheroes, and off-color humor to the traditionally chaste Disney text. The text may be closed, but it is riddled with bullet-holes, with Depp as the lead gunman.

The Rogue: Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow

As every major production requires a bankable star to ensure financial backing, Bruckheimer, still with no more than a general idea of a product, sought and surprisingly recruited Johnny Depp for the role of Captain Jack Sparrow. Best known for his quirky roles and esoteric performances in collaboration with indies and auteurs (Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, etc.), Depp might seem the least likely choice for a Disney film. Having settled down with French pop singer Vanessa Paradis, Depp acknowledged his willingness, after years of antagonism, to accept the Hollywood machine and make something “for the kiddies.” Nevertheless, Depp’s image remains irreconcilable with that of Disney. He has played a transvestite, a scissor-handed man, a cocaine-baron, the Earl of Rochester, and Hunter S. Thompson; no doubt: not Disney. But Bruckheimer, with his sense of blockbuster, saw the necessity of a bit of pirate “spice” in the essentially straight story of classic Disney proportions.

Additional spice was added by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, best known for their work on Aladdin(Clements and Musker, 1992) and Shrek (Adamson and Jenson, 2001). Both films radiate a sense of tongue-in-cheek meta-consciousness, acknowledging and reveling in their own self-awareness as cartoons, films, and fairytales. Both works are highly referential: think The Genie’s (Robin William’s) pop-culture references or Shrek’s homage to historical and contemporary fairy tales and films. Elliott and Rossio’s work with Pirates fits this mold, this time slyly poking fun at the very essentialized pirate narratives and Disney ficiation they were enlisted to produce.

The casting of Depp constitutes a small coup in and of itself. Granted, 21 Jump Street made him a teen heartthrob in the late 1980s, a status that continues to attract young and middle-aged female fans. Yet, his varied history and assorted escapades connote scandal, indecency, and even un-Americanness. A veritable ex-patriot, he has yet to marry his long-term French girlfriend and mother of his two children. His trashing of several hotel rooms was widely covered in the early 1990s press; anyone decently acquainted with pop culture will recall that River Phoenix overdosed at Hollywood’s the Viper Club, owned by Depp. Compounded by his list of esoteric film roles, Depp’s “star” is anything but Disney- and family-friendly. Indeed, Depp’s character, Captain Jack Sparrow, is intended to be an antihero. Lacking in moral conscious, he may no longer be a “bad” pirate (grouped with Barbossa [Geoffrey Rush] and the rest of the cursed bunch), but he is most certainly not a “good” one. The moral, it seems, is a variation on the clichéd theme: You can take the man off of the pirate ship, but you can’t take the pirate out of the man.

A Disney hero must clearly come of age, yet, as Depp and Verbinski explain in the DVD commentary, Sparrow (Depp) lacks any sort of character arc: He merely wants a ship, preferably his own, at the beginning, middle, and end of the film. He is unswayed by appeals to emotion, logic, or authority—his goals and character development remain wholly static throughout the film. As such, Sparrow is situated as antihero, thus exempted from the normal guidelines for a Disney hero. The role instead falls to Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who plays the film’s “straight man.” These roles are reinforced in a scene early in the film, when Captain Jack first encounters Will Turner. Having used Elizabeth as his shield to escape the British army, Jack, still manacled from his previous capture, makes his way to a blacksmith. The role of the virtuous and the unvirtuous are already clearly delineated—Will works hard for a living, suffering in silence while his drunken master takes credit for his work, paying close attention to detail. His dress and demeanor are pristine; a crisp white shirt is coupled with well-groomed hair and beard. Jack Sparrow, on the other hand, is devious: He does not hesitate to put a hot poker to a donkey’s rear in order to rid himself of his chains; his hat, like the rest of his clothing, is soiled and haphazard.

This early impression of Will Turner exemplifies traditional Disney characterization—the hero, his background, our willingness to root for him, and his love interest are all neatly set out in the first 15 minutes of the film. Nevertheless, Jack Sparrow severely disrupts the narrative, complicating traditional characterization and leading the audience to root for a far more ambiguous sort of hero. When the two first cross the swords, Turner keeps his sword straight and steady, his gaze focused ahead. Sparrow slides his sword up and down Turner’s, playfully declaring that he threatened Miss Swann “only a little.” Turner’s moral vision is black and white—either Sparrow threatened Miss Swann or he didn’t—while Sparrow’s is multivalenced. Sparrow’s take on the morality of his actions, like his level of engagement with Turner’s sword, is liberal.

Despite Sparrow’s oily and blackened visage, characteristics that would traditionally establish him as evil, the verbal wordplay that accompanies the action establishes Jack as a far more nuanced character. When Jack asks who makes the dozens of swords that surround the two, Turner earnestly replies, “I do—and I practice with them three times a day!” to which Sparrow replies, “You need to get yourself a girl, mate.” Turner’s traditional act of masculinity—his devotion to his craft and to swordplay—are undercut by Sparrow’s retort. Sparrow’s jab bruises the entire notion of the earnest, devoted, dutiful hero, using it for a laugh and rendering it absurd. Sparrow then postulates that Turner is “incapable of wooing said strumpet,” questioning, “you’re not a eunuch, are you?” The line invariably gets a laugh, and it serves as a turning point in the film: Sparrow has endeared himself to the audience while explicitly questioning the masculinity of his rival. As the duel proceeds, Sparrow and Turner are alternately launched into the air. With one on top, then the other, the nifty stunt serves as a neat metaphor for their positions in the mind of the audience—who’s to be our hero? While Turner gradually begins to accept the piracy of his father and eventually assists in Jack’s ultimate escape from the British, he remains the “straight” hero and moral center of the film. Turner grows less severe in his judgment, more accepting of others, and slowly wins the affection of the girl he loves. With the burden of maturation on Turner, Sparrow is free to subvert conventions, both of Disney and of its appropriated tale of piracy.

Disney purportedly exerted a certain amount of creative control over the film, a rumor best exemplified in the oft-quoted story of Eisner requiring Depp to reduce his mouthful of gold teeth to a more sightly two or three after the first day of shooting. Yet, several bits manage to elude the proverbial Disney machine. As shaped by Depp, Captain Jack Sparrow keenly resembles a queerly effete pirate with a serious drug history. His eyes are lined with thick, smudged kohl; his face is scarred, pocked, and, if one looks closely, what appears to be the sign of a venereal disease marks his right jaw. His beard is long enough to form two rattail-resembling braids, complemented by a mouth filled with teeth alternating between gold and dead. Beads, gold, chains, bandannas, and a soiled three-cornered hat serve as accessories. Sparrow alternately exudes heterosexual and homosexual appeal: His effeminacy, both in dress and demeanor, reads queerly, yet he continually brags of far-flung sexual conquests, with a gaggle of women lining up in Tortuga to berate him for his philandering ways. Several reviewers refer to him as pansexual—he bends notions of gender and sexuality, comfortably spanning the distance between societal definitions. Accordingly, Depp repeatedly credits two influences on his creation of Sparrow: guitarist Keith Richards and cartoon character Pepe Le Pew. In other words, he is a composition of a drug-addled, hot pants-wearing, rather debauched rock star and an unsuccessful yet oblivious ladies man, compounded by a tendency toward thievery and duplicitous behavior—once again: not Disney. Amusingly, Depp originally desired to play Sparrow without a nose—a pirate with a mortal fear of pollen, as it were. He pushed for noselessness and an entire mouth of gold teeth; Disney said no; Bruckheimer negotiated a compromise: Depp could play an authentically eccentric, partially gold-mouthed pirate … nose intact.

Ironically, Depp was free to create such a wildly original character in part because of Disney—as the Disney ride provided no clear precedent for Sparrow, Depp was given what amounted to a blank slate of a character. What’s more, both screenwriters were on set for the bulk of production, rewriting and forming the script as it filmed. As a result, their narrative was undoubtedly influenced by Depp’s ongoing performance of Sparrow, a conclusion reinforced by Will Turner’s imitation of Sparrow’s peculiar disposition halfway through the film. Recalling how the crew of the Black Pearl had mutinied against Sparrow, Mr. Gibbs explains that they “marooned him on an island and left him to die—but not before he’d gone mad with the heat.” Turner responds “Ahhh, so that’s the reason for all the …” at which point he begins to pantomime Jack’s leering, off-kilter demeanor. This bit of self-referential humor would be impossible without foreknowledge of Depp’s performance. Regarded in this light, Depp’s “pirating” of the film seems a bit of subversive brilliance, effectively shaping the script and narrative around his character and vision of the film in general.

Examining the prerelease trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, one senses that Disney was feeling no small amount of anxiety concerning Depp’s untraditional performance. Rather than showcasing its star power or Depp’s humor, the trailer focuses on the dark, cursed world of the pirates, filled with special effects, swordfights, and a pounding, chilling score. Even the film’s poster—a sinister-looking skeleton at the helm of a ship—conveys Disney’s marketing angle for the film. In short, play up the scary pirates, play down the crazy actor. However, Pirates was an immense and immediate success, grossing $70 million in its first week of release in July 2003. Perhaps more importantly, Depp’s performance was the talk of the summer, fueled in part by widespread circulation of the anecdote concerning the “inspiration” of Keith Richards. Disney quickly realized that the image on which to capitalize was not that of the cursed Barbossa or the earnest Jack Turner but the leering pansexual pirate. Depp was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, and simultaneous production began on the second and third installments of Pirates of the Caribbean. The film—very much due to Depp’s performance—went beyond Disney’s wildest dreams in its complementation of the Pirates ride.

Conclusions: A Closed Trilogy?

By changing the medium of the Pirates narrative, Disney intended to effectively close the available messages to consumers worldwide. What they did not anticipate, however, was how Johnny Depp would pirate the very message they intended to appropriate. Granted, when one thinks of pirates these days, one mostly thinks of Johnny Depp’s visage. The narrative may indeed be closed, yet it had closed in a direction unanticipated by the Disney Corporation and certainly never imagined by Walt himself. However, this was before the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The poster for the then-forthcoming film featured a skeletal head recognizable as that of Jack Sparrow, complete with a beaded headpiece. The trailer jump cuts between shots of the action and humorous shots of Sparrow; even the film’s tagline announces “Captain Jack is Back.” Clearly, Disney had conceded that Depp’s direction—not its own—was where the trilogy would head.

Yet, the magic of an original creation too often evades even the finest-crafted of sequels. In other words, proliferating plot lines spread over a trilogy of CGI madness cannot sustain the subversive, surprisingly un-Disney elements of the first installment. Instead, having switched its marketing campaign in and outside of the parks to focus on Captain Jack, it appears that Disney has thoroughly commodified the pansexual pirate, capitalizing on Depp’s performance and emptying it of its original soul. The bloated sequels evidence the corporation’s ability to co-opt and incorporate all subversive elements of the first film into the Disney machine; they verily overflow with fight scenes, incredible barnacle and octopus-headed villains, eerie witch doctors, shots of Captain Jack running like his britches are on fire, the evils of trade monopoly, bumbling characters from the first movie, a massive ship-swallowing sea monster, and an ancient goddess composed, apparently, of crabs. Fittingly, the ride itself closed for a short period for renovations intended to better mirror the narrative of the films, reopening in conjunction with the premiere of Dead Man’s Chest. Walt’s vision of Pirates has been synergized, the text has been closed, and Disney will now continue to commodify and capitalize on the image of the pirate as embodied in Johnny Depp and, to a lesser extent, Orlando Bloom.

A scene in the ending moments of Dead Man’s Chest does hint at a bit of moral ambiguity to the otherwise unnuanced narrative. Elizabeth passionately kisses Captain Jack whilst chaining him to the ship, leaving him for dead, and allowing the rest of the crew to escape the monstrous Kracken. In the DVD commentary, screenwriters Elliott and Rossio explain that this moment allows Elizabeth to both slake and drown her lust. She acts on her desire for Jack, telling him “I always knew you were a good man,” approaching him with a fixed look of unfeigned desire. Yet, she knowingly sends him to his death—as she chains him to the ship, she whispers, “[the kracken’s] after you, not us—this is the only way, don’t you see?” The kiss is sustained and passionate, and even after she chains him to the ship, her face remains mere inches from Jack’s, their conversation a continuation of the charged kiss. As the film ends, Elizabeth appears haunted by her decision—and as the publicity for the third film promised that Sparrow will return, audiences were left to contemplate whether the heroine would return to her devoted fiancé or fall for the increasingly appealing Sparrow.

While the exploration of Elizabeth’s lust presents a somewhat interesting, problematic twist, Turner’s willingness to forgive foreshadowed the unlikeliness of a romance between Sparrow and Elizabeth. In other words, I hesitate to valorize such plot twists when all signs pointed to traditional coupling at trilogy’s culmination. With a domestic gross of $423 million, Dead Man’s Chest has been acknowledged as the financial savior of the 2006 summer movie season. Yet, as un-Disney as its twisting plot lines appear, it’s simply another case of brilliant Disney marketing—while Elliott and Rossio praised Disney and Bruckheimer for his willingness to end the second installment on such a note of uncertainty, Dead Man’s Chest leaves audiences begging for expected narrative closure, easily purchasable (for a 10 dollar ticket price) in May of 2007, the release date for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

With blockbuster audiences fresh off their frustration with the overstuffed Spiderman 3, word of mouth for the equally inflated At World’s End was poor. Anthony Lane neatly sums up critical reception of the film, elaborating on the manner by which the franchise has been reduced from “jollity to wreck.”12 Yet, despite negative press and a dearth of audience buzz, the power of the franchise powered At World’s End to a $960 million international gross, a number slightly less robust than the international numbers for Dead Man’s Chest ($1.066 billion). At World’s End indeed demonstrates that “the theme park is now a ride without a theme,” but the ride continues toward its terminus in enormous Disney profits. If anything, its meandering narrative threads allow further commodification—the film resurrects those lost to Davy Jones’ Locker (Captain Barbossa; Captain Jack) and introduces several additional Pirates from “the ends of the world,” all neatly stereotyped racial caricatures that allow for easy reproduction on figurines, Raisin Bran boxes, incense, and dice games. Pirates of the Caribbean is no longer about cinema or subversion—it is about manufacturing a signified for thousands of proliferating products. As the original movie morphed into a franchise, laughs muted to mild amusement, and art became business. Still, audiences arrived in droves.

The Pirates franchise exemplifies Disney’s recent turn in corporate philosophy. With the 2005 ousting of Michael Eisner, Robert Iger took over as CEO, immediately distinguishing himself from Eisner, his one-time mentor. In the summer of 2006, Iger announced Disney’s revamped entertainment strategy: fewer films, all family-friendly, and each thoroughly vertically integrated with the parks and television holdings. In other words, if it wasn’t merchandisable, it was no longer Disney. This movement speaks to the greater franchise-frenzy that typifies twenty-first-century Hollywood: The summer of 2007 was that of the threequel, packed with third installments of previously profitable narratives: Spider-Man 3 (Raimi, 2007), Shrek the Third (Miller and Hui, 2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Ocean’s Thirteen (Soderbergh, 2007), Rush Hour 3 (Ratner, 2007), Resident Evil: Extinction (Mulcahy, 2007), and The Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007). Interestingly, only The Bourne Ultimatum out-grossed its predecessors, and the dismal business of Rush Hour 3 was, at least in part, attributed to “sequel fatigue.” Yet, the summer of 2008 is nevertheless slated with sequels, most notably to Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe(Adamson, 2005), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989), The Hulk (Lee, 2003), The Mummy Returns (Sommers, 2001), and The X-Files (Bowman, 1998). Even nonsequels draw on tested, readily recognizable ideas: Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), based on a Marvel comics character, and the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer, from the Japanese anime series. It seems that the only way to play in the high stakes game of blockbuster-producing is to insure your film with static, reliable tie-ins, unrelated to actual ticket sales. In other words, audiences may be unreliable, but their compulsion to buy Happy Meals is not. When it comes to risking hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s not difficult to see why producers opt for the tested, albeit tired, ideas.

In essence, we live in a world where mega-corporations have pirated a once-vibrant world of amusement, entertainment, fantasy, and fun, and each narrative—historical, mythical, or otherwise—has already begun to close amidst our capitalist efforts to brand the faces of history. Throughout the twentieth century, Disney stuck to children’s myths and fairy tales, creating the ultimate childrens’ product. In the recent past, having acquired ABC, ESPN, plus innumerable networks, radio stations, news outlets, and print media, Disney has expanded to ‘tweens and teens, the sports-hungry, the middle-aged, and the nostalgic. The fear, then, is that Disney has set its sights far beyond the world of children’s entertainment. While a child’s ability to imagine, individually conceive, and think beyond the images on a screen are of ultimate importance, Disney’s practice of textual closure has moved past the playground, infiltrating the very grown-up world of politics, global relations, and what it means to be an American. Director Gore Verbinski has repeatedly emphasized that the Pirates ride “is ingrained in our collective psyche.” The movies will take a similar role for a new generation of Americans, and my hope is that they not only remember Depp’s off-kilter smile or off-color humor but the fact that the combination of these traits—and our willingness to endorse them—indeed pirated the pirate film.