SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers regarding all FOUR Pirates movies. Do not read, I repeat, DO NOT READ, if you haven’t yet seen the movies!
If nothing else, Disney delivers consistency!! In Pirates 4, they’ve once again found a subtle, but clear way to drive home their message of syncretism. The most basic theme of Disney’s mythology is the Romantic notion that the archetypal exists, and not only does it exist, but that beauty is to be found in the emotional experience of the archetypal. Disney’s myths attempt to deflate tension created by a dialectical approach to relationships by offering a “yes/and” option to the traditional “yes/no” question.
In this aspect, they are most typically post modern. However, the “yes, and, and, and and…” answer that Disney continues to offer brings forward the concepts of Romanticism, because it suggests that unity is found in diversity and that unity speaks the language of love: passion, compassion, kindness and possibly obsession.
The Pirates franchise seems an unlikely candidate for this message, but oddly enough, it has been one of its key themes since the beginning. The series begins with Elizabeth Swan as a small child, aboard a ship that rescues a mini-pirate by the name of Will Turner. At first glance, Elizabeth seems the archetypal image of the era’s aristocracy. She is obedient, intelligent and she knows her voice and her place. BUT, the fact that she loves Will from moment she spies him in the water suggests that all is not what it seems with her.
The characters switch to their young adult selves, almost immediately. As a man, Will is not the cliché of a pirate, but neither is he the upwardly mobile, socially spotless Norrington, whom Elizabeth finds tiresome and ultimately unattractive. The passion between Elizabeth and Will lies in the complication, the complexity they find in each other. The subsequent films (2 and 3) continue to develop this theme. Elizabeth and Will never quite journey to the depths of the danger they find in each other. That danger finds a channel in Piracy, the very structure that eventually separates them from each other physically. In the end, Will does his duty and Elizabeth remains a solitary pirate. They so perfectly embody the unification between feminine and masculine aspects of the soul that not even Will’s sacrificial choice to become the next Davy Jones (to have his heart cut out of his chest and be bound to the Flying Dutchman with a chance to return to land only once every 10 years) separates them. The final scene of At World’s End shows Elizabeth with a child she has apparently conceived with Will during their one night together before he must return to the sea. They two are separated in body, but the child they share reflects the union between them; an image of their complexity. The film ends, and of course, the female contingency of the audience utters a sigh, the lights come up and we exit. Beautiful! Because, clearly, there is only one Will-izabeth, right? Well, not really. All of the lovers in this franchise are actually couples that opposite energies. (The exception that proves the rule is the short lived attraction between Elizabeth and Jack, two characters who are way too similar to ever find true passion between them.)
Pirates 4 goes there, developing the theme of the star-crossed lovers YET again, but with a bit of a twist this time. This time the lovers are not simply from opposite sides of the sociological tracks, they are different species. Furthermore, they are different mythic systems entirely. Phillip, our adorable young missionary, is the archetypal Christian evangelist (almost Bunyan-y in his fervor). He falls desperately in love with Syrena (nice play on words there, Disney! Way to refer to Homer!) our mermaid, who is dark and dangerous with eyes that are deeply expressive.
The audience is introduced to Phillip when Captain Jack Sparrow notices him tied to the mast of Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. When Jack asks what his crimes have been, he is informed that Blackbeard wanted to kill him for the lip he’d been giving him, but Angelica, (Penelope Cruz), Blackbeard’s daughter and Jack’s past lover (who, herself, wears the image of the cross and is on a mission to save her father’s soul), argued against it. She insists that to save his life would bode well for the survival of his immortal soul. Phillip is eventually released during a mutiny organized by Captain Jack. The young missionary immediately speaks up for the fellow sailors who have been involved with the mutiny, seeking to save not only their lives and souls, but the soul of Blackbeard as well. Blackbeard continues to ignore him, making is clear that his life also hangs in precarious balance.
Later, as the crew hunts for mermaids, Phillip is among the first to be used as a decoy to draw the mermaids near. The sailors cower in longboats as they recount legends about mermaids luring men to their deaths at the bottom of the sea and eating them. Suddenly, Phillip notes movement in the water. The crew perks as a stunning creature (who looks surprising like actress Amanda Seyfried) approaches the stern of the boat, cooing to the sailors to hear them sing. The sailor with the notable voice is lured to her, and as he reaches out to kiss the mermaid, she pulls him over and the fight begins.
Phillip seems to be a collateral damage, dragged down to the depths, but he surfaces, unwittingly trapping a mermaid by the tail. Later, he pierces the mermaid’s tail knowingly trapping her, as she cowers in fear. She is captured, and Blackbeard has her placed in a glass coffin (which reminded me a bit too much of Snow White…but that’s a different blog post…). Phillip is clearly moved by the beauty of the creature, as well as her plight. He watches over her (pardon the pun) religiously, and a bond begins to form when he cracks open the coffin so she can breathe. As Brucie nudged me and said, “uh oh…naughty boy. He’s falling in love with a mermaid.” LOL
Well anyway, i could recount the entire plot, but suffice it to say, they fall into a passionate infatuation with each other. The mermaid’s tears Blackbeard needs for the ritual required for efficacy of the aqua de vida are acquired only when Syrena cries out of relief that the man she says is not like the others is alive. I’ll wrap up this segment by saying that she becomes the savior to Jack Sparrow and Angelica, and a savior to Phillip, kissing him and dragging him down beneath the water in order to heal a presumably mortal wound he receives during the final battle.
So what’s the point? Really now, I find it fascinating that this romantic lead is a missionary. He is such a fervent believer in Christianity that he takes up with the infamous pirate Blackbeard just for the sake of saving souls on his ship. And, our heroine is a mermaid, the very creatures with fangs who capture and drown all those men they inflame. This entire franchise is about mistaken identities and prejudice. It is about the reversal of social expectations. Pirates are expected to be vicious, ruthless killers with no moral code, sense or feeling for others. Clearly, this is untrue. Jack, Gibbs Will and Elizabeth reverse this expectation. But a passionate bond between a mythic creature and a Christian missionary?? Could it be possible for Christianity to come out of the clouds and back into the body? Disney suggests it so, as the fusing of desire between a minister and a pagan is presented here without either complication or any necessity for compromise? In typical Disney fashion, love wins. God is in his heaven and all is well.
Only the mythic voice that brought us Captain Jack could envision THAT kind of union of the opposites…and make it look this hot, by the way…