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Can Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" avoid a grizzly fate at the box office?

Jim Hill

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Can Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" avoid a grizzly fate at the box office?

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Ah, what a difference almost-a-year makes.

Some of you may recall how in late July 2002, Disney's "The Country Bears" opened in theaters nationwide. This Walt Disney Pictures production got absolutely hammered by the critics. Grossing only $16.9 million during its entire domestic run, "Country Bears" didn't even come close to covering its $20 million production budget (let alone the additional $10-$15 million that the Mouse had poured into promotion).

That entire production was an enormous embarrassment for the Walt Disney Company. And the Mouse was soundly ridiculed by its Hollywood rivals for daring to try and turn one of its theme park attractions into a major motion picture.

But now it's July 2003. And "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is sailing into multiplexes today on a veritable wave of good buzz. Movie fans all around the country seem are eagerly lining up at the box office to see ... a major motion picture that's based on a Disney theme park attraction.

Scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. Photo Credits: Elliot Marks, SMPSP.
Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, left) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, right) join forces
in Walt Disney Pictures' Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
© Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc. All rights reserved.

What gives? How is it that -- in just 347 short days -- the public's perception of what makes a really good movie can make such a radical shift?

Well, the answer lies in the Mouse's ability to learn from its mistakes. And -- believe you me -- there were dozens made on that "Country Bears" project. For example:

When Walt Disney Studios initially decided that it finally wanted to get serious about developing major motion pictures that were based on the corporation's most popular theme park attractions, it initially looked in-house for writing talent. Which is how Mark Perez -- a recent graduate of Disney's screenwriting fellowship program -- got assigned to write the first draft of "The Country Bears" movie script.

Later, at the insistence of "TCB" director Peter Hastings, TV animation vet Paul Rugg (best known for his work on the WB's "Animaniacs" and "Freakazoid!") was brought in to punch up and polish Perez's screenplay. But -- given that neither Mark or Paul had extensive screenwriting experience at the time -- it's easy to understand how the screenplay for Disney's "Country Bears" film might have gotten off track.

Now ... having learned from the quick but painful flame-out of "The Country Bears" at the box office, Disney did things decidedly differently when it came to developing "Pirates of the Caribbean" into a full fledged feature film.

Sure, it was Mark Perez who reportedly still got to do the first pitch on the project. But -- when Perez's ideas were found wanting -- Disney quickly turned to Jay Wolpert (the screenwriter behind Touchstone Picture's 2002 release, "The Count of Monte Cristo") and asked him to take a pass at the material.

Wolpert turned in a "Pirates" screenplay to Disney in December 2001. And the Mouse allegedly liked Jay's take on the tale very very much. But even so, the studio then hired Stuart Beattie (an Australian screenwriter who's said to be quite an expert on the world of pirates) in March 2002 to try and add an air of authenticity to the production.

Which got the screenplay of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie ever more closer to being something worth filming. But it wasn't 'til "Pirates" producer Jerry Bruckheimer brought in the big guns -- Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (the very talented gentlemen best known for their work on the screenplays of Disney's "Aladdin" and Dreamwork's "Shrek") -- to rework what Perez, Wolpert and Beattie had done previously.

It was Ted and Terry who finally came up with the real hook for the film -- that the movie's pirates are doomed to walk the earth as living skeletons until every piece of a cursed treasure is returned. This was the plot twist that ultimately convinced Bruckheimer -- as well as Disney studio execs -- that they finally had the makings of a really good movie. Which is how "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (with an estimated production budget of $130 million: $100 million+ for the film itself, $30 for the movie's promotion) finally got greenlit.

AND THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS: Don't settle for a just an okay script, gang. Doggedly keep at it 'til you've a really good screenplay in hand ... then see if you can persuade your screenwriters to stay on set while the movie is being shot. (Strange but true, folks. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were actually on set every single day as Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" was being shot. Which made them instantly available should Gore Verbinski, the film's director, or cast have any questions or concerns.)

Among Disneyana fans, one of the main complaints about Disney's "Country Bears" movie was "Those bears up there on the screen don't look anything like the AA figures in the "Country Bear Jamboree" show."

Well, that was a deliberate choice by the "Country Bears" production team. Their exact orders to the folks over at the Jim Henson Creature Shop (the FX company that actually produced -- as well as puppeteered -- all of the bear suits in "TCB") were: "Don't be afraid to deviate from Marc Davis' original designs for the bear characters. We're trying to do something different here."

Well, maybe the Creature Shop's take on the bears was a little too different. Making these well-known characters virtually unrecognizable to moviegoers. Which -- in the end -- is perhaps what made the "Country Bear" movie difficult for audiences to embrace.

Peter Hastings, the director of "The Country Bears" seemed to recognize this. Perhaps that's why -- very late in the film's shooting schedule -- Hastings attempted to insert a scene in the movie that recreated one of the more popular moments from the "Country Bear Jamboree" theme park show: where Big Al sings "Blood on the Saddle."

I was actually on the set of "The Country Bears" the day that this particular scene was shot. This brief vignette was filmed inside that ornate recreation of Country Bear Hall (which was built at great expense out on Disney's Golden Oaks Ranch in Newhall, CA) in front of 300 cheering extras. Peter had the actor in the Henson bear suit lip sync to the very same vocal track that all the Big Al AA figures in the theme parks perform to (I.E. Tex Ritter's 1959 mournful recording of "Blood on the Saddle").

Unfortunately, Hasting's last ditch effort to deliberately put a piece of the "Country Bear Jamboree" theme park show into his "Country Bears" movie didn't pay off. When Disney's editors were piecing together the final version of the "Country Bears" film, that Big Al "Blood on the Saddle" scene was left on the cutting room floor. Why for? Because -- to be honest -- it was just too little too late. A ham-handed, last minute acknowledgement of the extremely popular theme park attraction that had spawned this very unpopular movie.

This is another hard lesson that the "Pirates of the Caribbean" production team learned from Disney's "Country Bears" movie: you really do have to make some sort of acknowledgment of your source material. Disneyana fans (as well as the millions of other folks who have been to the Disney theme parks over the past 36 years) are going to expect it.

Which is why Elliot, Rossio, Verbinski and Bruckheimer did a very bright thing. They chose to sprinkle little bits of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction throughout their "Pirates" motion picture. Mind you, they only pop up every now and then ...

The dog who's holding the keys while Jack Sparrow's locked in the dungeon at Port Royal.
The pirate hugging the pigs in Tortuga.
The big busty redhead who slaps Jack.
The skeleton pirates as they guzzle the rum.

... not to mention that cave full of loot. But still these scenes are enough to get a rise out of the audience. A laugh of recognition from those folks who are familiar with the theme park ride that spawned this picture.

But the beauty of what Ted, Terry, Gore and Jerry have done is, even if you've never ever been on "Pirates of the Caribbean" (the ride), you're still going to enjoy "Pirates of the Caribbean" (the motion picture). The story's that solid. The film's that good.

One of the other things that Disney was soundly criticized for on its "Country Bears" movie was that production's far-too-heavy reliance on television talent. With the exception of Haley Joel Osment (the voice of Beary Barrington) and Christopher Walken (who played the film's comic villain, Reed Thimple), practically everyone else associated with the film -- Diedrich Bader, Daryl Mitchell, Alex Rocco on down -- were all sitcom vets.

Now -- given how notoriously cost conscious the Walt Disney Company has become -- this may have seemed like a smart move at the time. But the sad fact of the matter is: people don't like to pay movie theater prices for performers that they can easily see for free at home while seated on their couch.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer obviously kept this lesson in mind as he began to cast his "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. Which is why Jerry went after top flight talent like Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush, screen heartthrob Orlando Bloom as well as promising newcomers like Keira Knightley. But Bruickheimer's real coup was in persuading Johnny Depp to star as the roguish but charming Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp's decidedly different take on this character (piracy by way of Keith Richards) just makes the movie. At least for me.

So here we have a expertly produced production backed by a top flight cast and a solidly written script. Now the big question is ... can Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" overcome Tinsel Town's infamous pirate movie curse?

It's true, people. The major studios in Hollywood has not produced a truly great -- or even remotely satisfying -- pirate picture in over 50 years. The last film that really swashed anyone's buckle was 1952's "The Crimson Pirate" starring Burt Lancaster. Which is still really worth a look-see if you're in desperate need of a good pirate pic.

Prior to that ... well, sure there had been earlier great pirates. Like 1935's "Captain Blood" with Errol Flynn or 1945's "Captain Kidd" with Charles Laughton.

But once the 1950s rolled around, the whole genre had showed some serious signs of running out of steam. Robert Newton's enthusiastic chewing of the scenery in Disney's 1950 "Treasure Island" put one nail in the coffin. As did Charles Laughton parodying of his earlier excellent pirate portrayal in 1952's "Abbott & Costello meet Captain Kidd."

But after "The Crimson Pirate" sailed off into the cinematic sunset, there was this 50-year long period of doldrums. Where not a single pirate picture seemed to win real favor with moviegoers.

Don't believe me? Well, then how many of you think back fondly on Robert Shaw's performance in 1976's "Swashbuckler?" Or Walter Matthau's piratical turn in Roman Polanski's 1986 dud, "Pirates?" And don't even get me started on Steve Spielberg's 1991 big budget bomb, "Hook," or Renny Harlin's 1995 fiasco, "Cutthroat Island." (The failure of that film actually cost Harlin his marriage to "Cutthroat Island" star Geena Davis.)

You have to understand that this was what was going through the minds of Disney Studio execs as they looked over the $100-million-plus budget proposal for "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" ... that not a single pirate movie in the past 50 years has been a real box office success. And yet here was the Walt Disney Company, about to greenlight a big budget swashbuckler.

So will Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" finally be the film that breaks the curse? Will "The Curse of the Black Pearl" be the first pirate movie to make it into the black in over half a century?

Check back with JimHillMedia.com at the tail end of August when we'll discuss how Disney's summer offerings actually did this year.

In the meantime ... I'm setting sail for my local multiplex. To catch a matinee and see how "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" fares with the average film-goer.

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