DISNEYLAND ANNOUNCED earlier this month that it was closing one of its most beloved rides for more than just an ordinary renovation. When it reopens in the summer, Pirates of the Caribbean at both Disneyland and Disney World will feature characters from the two films inspired by … the original ride.
It's good marketing and makes for a particularly dizzying case of life imitating art imitating life, or more precisely, theme park imitating blockbuster film imitating theme park. But the original Pirates ride, however technologically dated, will be missed.
A movie based on a ride may seem to be a lark — and indeed, Disney's "Haunted Mansion" was. But "Pirates" earned critical acclaim and worldwide gross revenue in the hundreds of millions. Disney is banking on the sequel to "Pirates," due this summer, to pull similar crowds, and it hopes that both movies can do for the ride (and for theme park attendance in Disney's 18-month, 50th anniversary celebration) what the ride did for the movies. Disneyland has brought its more-recent films into the park before, usually in the form of special shows, "character greetings" or attractions at California Adventure. But this will be the first time a recent film reworks a classic ride.
Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's idiosyncratic, Keith Richards-style pirate, and villains from both films will join the familiar animatronic scoundrels beloved by generations. Since 1967, the original crew has sacked and re-sacked a Spanish Main town for guests gliding gently through the waters (save for the occasional shiver from a nearby cannonball hit), while some of its members wait endlessly for a reluctant dog to hand over the keys to their jail cell.
That particular tableau found its way to the big screen in the first "Pirates" movie, serving as a not-so-inside joke, one of those increasingly rare cultural references that almost everybody understands and finds inoffensive. Which is what's so appealing about the Pirates ride: its rickety, old-fashioned sense of humor, its G-rated, family friendly take on some pretty brutal subject matter — the pillaging of a colonial seaport — and its refusal to acknowledge the rapidly changing world outside its caverns. Knowing that the ride was the last to be supervised by Walt Disney adds still more texture to its anachronistic charm.
The ride will certainly continue to thrill, or at least amuse, when Johnny Depp joins the cast. But makeup and dreadlocks aside, Jack Sparrow's face is easily identified as that of a modern movie star. Among the swarthy animatronic commoners, Depp's mug will collapse the decades of history that would have reminded riders of why exactly Pirates — however hokey and out of date — was evocative enough to win stamps of approval from both Walt Disney himself and modern-day moviegoers.