Was "Pirates" pirated?

Remember Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl?" One of the two Disney movies in recent memory that didn't completely suck? ("Finding Nemo" being the other.) The triumphant performance by Johnny Depp playing a drunk, flaming Capt. Jack Sparrow? Of course you do. Everyone on the planet saw it, and two-thirds of all people on Earth now own the DVD. (Two-sentence review: It's a good DVD, worth the price for the back-lot footage on the building of the Black Pearl alone. Plus Depp's intro scenes are endlessly watchable; Slug gives it two fully erect antennae.)

"Pirates" succeeds despite a weak and wacky plot which, the story goes, is the result of it being based loosely on the (far-out) ride of the same name. The execrable "The Haunted Mansion" serves to prove the point: It ain't easy to put a ride on film.

To one Central Florida man, however, the plot is more than wacky. It's oddly familiar. And it's not based on the ride; he thinks it's based on a film he made in 1994 for $150.

Sounds farfetched, no? Ah, but Disney has been accused of pinching other people's ideas before. In November 2002, Mark Waters filed a suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of his late friend, Robert Jaffray, claiming that Disney ripped off Jaffray's ideas for a project called "Miniature Worlds." Almost two decades later, the company built Epcot. The case is still in federal court.

Royce Mathew wants some of that action too. The legions of astute Slug readers will recognize the name, but for the rest of you a short primer: Mathew has graced this space before as an adamant opponent of prayer before city council meetings and Orlando city commissioner Vicki Vargo's proclamation supporting Exodus International, a group that works to reform gays with God's help.

But this isn't about past imbroglios. This is about the fateful day in June when Mathew, seeking a little escapist entertainment, went to the theater to catch a showing of "Pirates." "I saw the movie and I just choked," says Mathew, an intense, somewhat disconcerting fellow in his 30s with a shock of red hair reminiscent of a certain Orlando native.

Before moving to Florida about a year ago, Mathew lived in Los Angeles, where he worked in the movie business. You've never heard of him because he's a behind-the-scenes guy who specialized in the light tits-and-ass features popular on USA. For example, he did production design and art direction on "Assault of the Killer Bimbos," art direction for "Chick Boxer," that sort of thing.

He also wrote, produced and directed his own film in 1989 called "Dream a Little Evil," which critics ripped into like ravenous monkeys in a banana patch. "Juv-enile, sloppy and utterly pointless," writes the reviewer on The Video Graveyard site. "It blatantly rips off 'The Exorcist.'" None-theless, the movie did screen several times on USA, a sort of triumph in itself, some would argue.

Despite his film debut, Mathew found regular work behind the cameras. And agents knew talent when it crossed their desks, he says. In the early '90s, through connections with talent agencies, he claims to have begun a series of meetings with Disney creative types. "[The meetings] were to show Disney that I can write, I can edit and I can direct."

He screened "Dream" for them. And to impress them further, he whipped up a 30-minute untitled short that he refers to as "the supernatural pirate movie," an atrocious, indecipherable, grainy jumble of swashbuckling clich?s that featured his friends as the cast. (I know because Mathew lugged a DVD player and a TV into my office to screen it for me.)

That was in 1995. What is remarkable is that Mathew then recast the movie into an interactive CD-ROM game called "Treasure Island" and distributed it worldwide when the game market was still in its infancy. Alas, critics ripped into that effort like wolverines on a staked poodle: "This is an interesting concept that is poorly executed and illustrates vividly all the bad features of interactive movies, and then some," wrote the Quandary Review. Damn critics.

Mathew says Disney ultimately showed him the door. "They were bastards, the way they treated me."

Fast-forward to June 2003 and Mathew sitting in that dark theater in Orlando. He starts watching "Pirates." He starts choking. His pirate movie opens with a misty sea shot. "Pirates" opens with a misty sea shot. His movie has a shipwreck survivor wearing a gold medallion. "Pirates" has a shipwreck survivor wearing a gold medallion. His movie's protagonist is a blacksmith who is also an expert swordsman. Disney's protagonist is blacksmith who is also an expert swordsman. His movie features a pirate ship named the Black Pearl. So does Disney's movie.

Here's the clincher in Mathew's mind: His pirates exist somewhere between the living and the dead. They turn into ghouls when exposed to moonlight -- a special effect he created with black light and soft focus in his movie. Disney's pirates, as every one on Earth knows by now, do the same damn thing. Case closed!

Mathew is shopping his case around to lawyers in Orlando and California. To date several have shown interest. He's wary, though. "Disney has spies."

No doubt, an intellectual property claim against a movie based on a ride that is indisputably Disney's intellectual property will be an uphill battle. But Mathew has the confidence of the righteous. "They will not be able to fight this," he says. If Disney happens to put out a juvenile, sloppy rip-off of "The Exorcist" any time soon, then Mathew gets the last laugh for sure.

This column loosely based on "Death Sluts From Hell"
Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.