The Great Movie Ride: Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
To most, I am a film nerd. I go to film school, I work at an art house theater, I am often seen taking in the latest big movie at the local megaplex, and I write for a few movie sites, including this fine establishment now. This however isn’t the full picture of me. If you were to ask anyone who really knows me, they might tell you that I am also a Theme Park nut. It’s true. I prefer the term “enthusiast” but I digress. Since my first trip to Walt Disney World at the age of six, I was hooked on the concept of a place you could go and escape into highly themed lands of entertainment and adventure. My main passion is for Disney World, because you never forget your first, but since then I’ve come to enjoy places like Universal Studios and others as well.
Of course, these days, movies and theme parks go together like cookies and cream, especially at movie themed parks like Universal, Disney’s Hollywood Studio, WB Movie World, and parts of Six Flags, so it’s no wonder my two hobbies come together in such wonderful style. This has inspired me to take a look at movies that are inspired by theme parks. I am going to start with probably the most popular and famous of all, the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
First, let’s have a little history. Walt Disney had spent years building his name in Hollywood, becoming king of animation and live action filmmaking. His studios churned out many movies, some classics, some not so much, but regardless of your feelings on the man, he changed the way things were done many times over. While at a small amusement park with his children, Walt realized that there was something missing from the experience of a fun park. He sat on a bench wishing he could be part of the fun, and decided to create a place where people of all ages could enjoy the amusements within. It took a long time, with lots and lots of planning, re-planning, and building, but in 1955, the park opened to the masses. It had a few hiccups that Disney would have liked to have avoided, such as the fresh pavement melting in the hot California sun, causing people’s shoes to get stuck in it or them running out of every ounce of Soda they had on the premises. Part of the nightmare was someone had gotten a hold of the ticket for opening day, and made hundreds of copies, so the park was overwhelmed with people. Eventually, they worked out the kinks, and Disneyland became a smash hit, proving Walt’s crazy dream was totally justified.
Because of the success of Disneyland, Disney became involved in the 1964 World’s Fair, crafting many of the exhibits seen there. One of the most popular was Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. This was one of the first times guests had experienced such a life like “audio animatronic” as Disney liked to call them. The success of Lincoln’s run at the World’s Fair brought him back to Disneyland as a conquering hero, and a model for future attractions. Disney had been working on an idea for a walk through attraction using wax figures themed to the world of pirates, but Lincoln opened up new opportunities for ride and character design, so Walt proposed the walk through become a ride, using a similar boat system to it’s a small world, which had also been a hit at the World’s Fair. This was the birth of the idea that became Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as the start of the first new “land” built in Disneyland since it’s opening day. New Orleans Square housed the show building, as well as shops, a restaurant (which was built into the ride building), and a place for Walt to spend the night with his family. The land opened in the summer of 1966, the ride opened almost a year later in the spring of 1967. It was an instant success, and became world famous.
When Walt Disney World was opened in 1971, people automatically assumed the ride they had seen on Disney’s television specials and other media would be a part of the park, but it wasn’t. There was never any plan to bring Pirates to Florida, because it was thought it was too close to the actual Caribbean for it to be a success. Public outcry changed this feeling, and they decided to build the ride anyway. Two years after Disney World opened, The Magic Kingdom had it’s own Pirates ride, located in Adventureland, since Disney World had no New Orleans themed section.
When people think of the Disney Parks, they often think of Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s iconic and at the time of it’s release, it was a revolutionary use of technology. It has been a mainstay of nearly all the Disney parks built around the world (with the exception of Hong Kong, but the Shanghai park opening in a few years will have one) and as such it was a logical choice when Walt Disney Pictures set their sights on the assets at the theme parks.
The first films that Disney made out of a theme park attraction were Mission to Mars, which most people didn’t know was based on a ride (since it was released by Touchstone Pictures, the adult arm of Disney Pictures) and then The Country Bears. Neither were huge hits, with the latter being a huge disappointment to the studio (and have you seen that fucking movie? Yeesh.) so it was time to go big or go home, and they planned two films based on their most popular rides (we’ll get into the second one at a later time)
In 2001, Jay Wolpert was brought on to write the script. Wolpert had been mostly working in television game shows, so this was an odd step up for him, but eventually the script was handed off to relative newcomer Stuart Beattie who worked on a re-write until Jerry Bruckheimer of Armageddon fame came on board and brought Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio with him. Their work is the basis for what would become the first film in Disney’s most successful film franchise in ages. Hiring the director of the Ring seemed like a great choice to the bean counters at Disney, and the production was off. Casting would become another important ingredient. They brought in Keira Knightley who was a good fit for the period role, Orlando Bloom fresh of the success of Fellowship of the Ring, and Australian actor Geoffrey Rush to play a dastardly villain. The final ingredient was who would play the film’s lead character, a down on his luck pirate with a penchant for theatrics. The producers and filmmakers all wanted Johnny Depp, but this scared the suits at Disney very much (especially after Depp had his teeth altered to play the role.) His take on the character was one that Disney didn’t think jibed well with the theme park atheistic at all, but eventually they were won over by his charm. The film steamed ahead into a speedy production, lasting from October 2002 to March 2003, leaving little less than 4 months for the post production until the June premiere, to be held at Disneyland. It was not without it’s problems. The biggest was the musical score, which was originally supposed to be written by Alan Silvestri, but he dropped out for unknown reasons. This left Disney in a bind, and they asked Hans Zimmer to do it, but he was busy, so he suggested one of his friends, Klaus Badelt for the job. Klaus was eventually aided by Zimmer who came on a producer of the score (and would take over on the rest of the series). As the hype for the film built, many thought that a good film based on a 12 min. theme park ride with very little story to speak of was doomed to fail. I remember seeing people laughing about the teaser trailer, which was so bare bones it only had one shot from the film.
The teaser poster released for the film promised faithfulness to the ride, but said absolutely nothing about what to expect in the film other than that. Early marketing of this movie is kind of impressive at how little it shows you, and then they move onto a trailer that shows an awful lot of the film, including some of it’s signature moments. Whatever the marketing team did it worked, because the film was released and became the biggest success of the summer.
People went out in droves to see the film. I myself saw it a few times in theaters, thoroughly impressed at how entertaining the film was. It’s a thrill ride, living up to the source material in ways beyond simple aesthetics. It feels like you’ve strapped in and they take you on an adventure for 2 hours. It re-launched the career of Johnny Depp, and made Orlando Bloom a mainstay for a few years. The film still stands up as one of the more entertaining films made in the last decade.
Of course Disney was thrilled to have a huge hit, and interest in one of their classic rides spiked higher than ever. It was a win win for the company, and they looked for any way to keep that money rolling in. First on the plate was a sequel, of course, but even more than that was the desire to bring the movie into the ride. I’ll talk about that in the next entry.