Entire family: No
2014, 130 min., Color
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence and language)
Well Go USA
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Korean 5.1 HD Surround/DTS-HD
Bonus features: None
The real test of a movie in our household is whether one or all of us want to add that film to our collection so we can watch it again. And 15 minutes into The Pirates, my teenage son was cracking up and saying, “This is a keeper.” I second the notion.
But I’ll tell you right now, your children have to be good and confident readers to enjoy this South Korean comedy-adventure, because it’s presented in Korean with English subtitles, and there’s plenty of fast-talking action.
Director Lee Seok-hoon pays obvious homage to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with a slick comedy-adventure that features a Johnny Depp-like bandit leader known as Crazy Tiger (Jang Sa-jung) and a female pirate chief-turned-captain (Son Ye-jin). There are funnily harrowing escapes and even a giant water wheel that rolls through a marketplace, all of which will remind you of Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan.
There’s a thin line between “homage” and “rip-off,” but The Pirates also features plenty of quirky originality. How else to describe a plot that turns on a whale that happens to swallow the royal seal and gold that was en route to validate a new dynasty? Though the film is set in 1388 and on the surface seems to tell the epic tale behind the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, there’s more comedy and magical realism in The Pirates than there is actual history. If it were an American film we’d be calling it a blockbuster or a popcorn movie, because it’s all about big special effects, a high-concept Hollywood formula, and plenty of action and laughs.
Viewers might even have Jaws flashbacks as one scene finds a shark pulling a ship along at a pretty good clip, but mostly it’s a South Korean riff on the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It’s not as good, mind you, but it’s also not that far behind. And it really is a lot of fun to watch.
I don’t want to get into spoilers, but while many of the characters are stock types, even the minor roles are as well cast as a Disney movie. And there’s a Great Race quality to The Pirates, as multiple factions of good guys and bad guys try to retrieve that seal and the gold from the belly of the whale. The bad guys have eye patches and scars, and the good guys have chutzpah and a self-deprecating humor that makes the scenes so engaging that my son didn’t say a word about having to read subtitles.
Some of the effects are those that we saw “pioneered” in Gladiator—that slow-motion, stop-motion sequence that’s jarringly edited, rather than extended stunt work—but there’s enough competent CGI work to more than compensate. And like most of the films coming out of South Korea, this one has style.
The Pirates (not to be confused with the UK claymation adventure of the same title) has a runtime of 130 minutes and isn’t rated, but it would, like the Johnny Depp series, probably merit a PG-13 rating. The violence isn’t as bad as in many PG-13 releases, there are no sexual situations or nudity, but you do get some foul language. As Capt. Sparrow would say, “Uh, PIRATES!” Mostly it’s all good fun, and to tell the truth, despite a few similarities to Sparrow and his adventures, I enjoyed spending time with this scurvy bunch.