It did exist, but what was it all about? And what, if any, is its connection to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies? We investigate Curse of Monkey Island, the canceled Monkey Island movie. This article originally appeared on The Monkey Island SCUMM Bar in 2013, and we’re keeping it mainly as a time capsule. For more current information, Polygon published its own story in 2021.
The rumors of a canceled Monkey Island movie first popped up in 2003 when Dominic Armato, voice of Guybrush Threepwood, posted a message on our forums about it:
Best I heard is that there WAS a script in development, but no longer. There was a department somewhere in the greater Lucas empire that was tasked with developing screenplays for some of the more animated film friendly LEC properties, but the department was scrapped in the big reorganization about... what... a year ago? Of course, this is old info and the project could very well have been resurrected by now, but the rumors that there was an MI movie in development aren’t entirely untrue
The movie, we later learned, was to be animated, and a sub-group of Industrial Lights and Magic was tasked with developing it.
While titled Curse of Monkey Island, the movie was an original story, and it was distinct from the series aside from the inclusion of Guybrush, LeChuck, Elaine, and monkeys.
A couple of years later we could reveal some concept art (see below) developed by Tony Stacchi and Steve Purcell for an
unnamed animated pirate project. Further work gradually made its way onto the internet, and it was eventually added as a bonus feature of a retail release of LucasArts’ special editions of the first two games.
The alleged Pirates of the Caribbean connection
Little is known about the movie (Footnote: in 2013 at least—see the above Polygon link for more), which never got particularly far before its abortion. But you can’t discuss the project without addressing certain rumors related to its supposed kinship to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.
Ever since the first Pirates movie was released, frustrated Monkey Island fans have entertained selves with the idea that it could be seen as a live-action counterpart to Monkey Island. Some went further and insistently believed that there is a genuine connection. A provocative quote from an anonymous source about the Monkey Island movie around the time the second Pirates of the Caribbean film is the source of much of the controversy that prevails to this day:
The really interesting thing is that the movie was going to be produced by Steven Spielberg (who is a big Monkey Island fan himself). He asked Ted Elliott, a scriptwriter who has worked on several Disney movies (including Treasure Planet) and on Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair game, to help with the story for the MI movie. The Monkey Island movie never got the green light and years later Ted Elliott wrote Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, which took several ideas from Monkey Island. So basically the first two PotC movies are the Monkey Island movie.
There is no official confirmation that Ted Elliott or Spielberg were ever involved with the Monkey Island animated film project (Footnote: there is now—see above). One of The SCUMM Bar’s trusted sources -- who will remain anonymous -- has
confirmed a Ted Elliott connection, though not Steven Spielberg’s alleged role.
We do know that Elliott and his longtime screenwriting partner, Terry Rossio, had attempted to pitch a film adaptation of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride to Disney in 1992. Their supernatural vision for the movie would eventually get made after years of studio resistance (due to a general belief, fueled by high-profile flops, that pirate movies were non-viably expensive) as well as some drafts by other writers that shied away from the supernatural. When pressed on the matter both Elliott and Rossio have maintained that they’ve never played the Monkey Island games. Rossio, in particular, seems to take understandable umbrage at the idea that their hard work was theft. Here’s a comment he left on an online article by The Oxford Student that implied as much:
You should really know your facts before making not-so-subtle accusations of plagiarism. Ted Elliott was never hired to write a story or screenplay to the computer game Monkey Island, not in the year 2000 or any other year. Ironically, the creators of Monkey Island have acknowledged their inspiration and debt to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
The screenwriting duo has addressed Monkey Island a few times on the forums of their site Wordplayer.com. For example, here’s where they’ve explicitly denied playing it when asked point-blank. First, Ted Elliott:
But wasn’t the Monkey Island game itself inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride? I recall that after the first movie came out, someone said we ripped off the
prisoners calling dog with keys from the game.
And Terry Rossio:
Wow, people are strange.
I read through some of those posts made by people who are familiar with the game (I’ve not played it, but then, I’ve not played ANY video game ... I couldn’t get past the first challenge of MYST). Anyway, in several posts listed, people said stuff like,
Wow, look at the voodoo lady, man, that is so similar, taken directly from the game.
It seems as though (from what I can glean) that the only similarity between the two characters is that each is a Voodoo Lady. Actually I did always feel less than brilliant on that character -- like how Stephen King felt about Abigail in the STAND, writing a kind of standard black mystic character from the south, a gypsy queen, swamp lady, voodoo queen, etc). The character always felt a bit ’stock’ (though we worked to make her as unique as we could). Anyway -- who would have thought that the choice to create a Voodoo Lady in a pirate film would lead a number of people to think we had to steal that idea from somewhere? I was going to write a horror film with a witch character, but now I’m not so sure ...
Although fans have delighted in pointing out the similarities (some of them downright uncanny) between the Pirates film franchise and the Monkey Island series, there’s no concrete evidence that these observations are anything but coincidental.
And Rossio is right, of course: Monkey Island was heavily influenced both by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and the Tim Powers novel On Stranger Tides. (Elliott and Rossio have independently cited that book as well and even went as far as to subtitle the fourth film On Stranger Tides in acknowledgment.)
The plot thickens. Or thinens.
OK, fine, there are one or two similarities.
Should Elliott have worked on a Monkey Island movie, anything lifted from the experience was evidently highly superficial. Again, our trusted but anonymous source had indicated that Curse of Monkey Island and Pirates of the Caribbean’s stories had next to nothing in common. This was later confirmed through the storyboards released with the Special Edition bundle. (Footnote: And, of course, later by Polygon.)
The film starts out with a pirate stealing a glowing jewel, the
Eye of the Monkey, from the head of a stone monkey idol. The pirate falls, and the jewel is taken from him by LeChuck, who appears in human form. The jewel is the final ingredient he needs to execute his evil plan. Suddenly, infuriated monkeys appear, chasing away LeChuck and his crew. LeChuck then throws the jewel to Murray, who is his second-in-command and still in possession of all of his body parts, commanding him to guard the jewel with his life.
When the pirates reach the safety of their ship, they are attacked by a fleet of ironclad ships, commanded by Elaine Marley, Captain of the Navy’s Anti-Pirate Armada. LeChuck manages to escape from the scene of the battle by firing a smart cannonball. LeChuck’s ship’s pirate flag then sinks in the ocean, eventually arriving at Mêlée Island, where it is picked up by Guybrush Threepwood, who is then a twenty-year-old chum-bait fisherman, dressed in a polyester pirate costume. He lives on a houseboat that’s done up like a miniature pirate ship, together with Sam, his pet monkey.
Guybrush returns to the bait company HQ, where he threatens to quit his job, like he does every day. His boss, Sean Cannery, does not take him seriously, however. Depressed, he starts talking to a statue on the docks, which actually speaks back to him, telling him to follow his dream.
Meanwhile, back at sea, Elaine is on LeChuck’s tail. Murray devises a plan to get rid of her: create a decoy and then escape to Voodoo Island. The pirates like this plan, which LeChuck presents as his own, and break out in singing. Guybrush hears this and looks up to see LeChuck’s magnificent ship pass in front of him. This inspires him so that he decides to follow the ship, sailing after it with his own boat.
In the Scumm Bar, LeChuck tries to recruit new crew members, but he doesn’t succeed - the bar patrons are all afraid of him. Guybrush walks by the Scumm Bar and hears LeChuck’s speech, and he is interested in joining LeChuck in his master plan of uniting all pirates under one black flag. Guybrush is tasked with finding the Treasure of Monkey Island, and he is given LeChuck’s ship. Six barflies from the Scumm Bar sign up with Guybrush’s crew, after receiving bribe money and death threats. LeChuck hands Guybrush his Monkey Island map, and he promises to find the treasure or die trying.
LeChuck and his crew are now on Guybrush’s (much too small) houseboat, and the decoy seems to be working: Elaine is now pursuing Guybrush, who is captaining LeChuck’s former ship. Guybrush’s crew turn out to be a bit of an unruly lot, and while they argue amongst themselves, Elaine has come aboard to imprison Guybrush and his crew on their own ship. Through a cunning plan involving a cannon, he manages to escape, however. The cannonball used in this escape attempt sets off a chain reaction, eventually sinking all the ships in Elaine’s fleet. Now the tables are turned: Elaine is Guybrush’s prisoner.
On Voodoo Island, LeChuck meets with a man-hungry Sea Hag to execute his secret plan of using the Eye of the Monkey to revive all dead pirates, so he can unite all pirates living and dead. When the moment comes to add the final ingredient, the Eye of the Monkey, Murray pulls it out of his pocket. Or rather, it turns out to be one of Sam’s walnuts. This so angers the Spirits of the Dead that they turn LeChuck and his crew into zombie skeletons. LeChuck realizes Guybrush and Sam must have stolen the jewel and replaced it with a walnut, so he sets off after them, together with the Sea Hag.
When Guybrush reveals to his crew that their destination is Monkey Island, they are terrified, because the waters surrounding it are known for their sea monsters. He tries to convince them there’s nothing to fear, but he doesn’t succeed, as a baby sea monster just came on deck. Guybrush faces off against the creature, showing off in front of Elaine, but then the baby’s mother appears, and she’s angry. The crew flee, leaving only Guybrush and Elaine to fight off the sea monster. They now have to unite against a common enemy. They shoot the baby sea monster away with a cannon (which he apparently rather enjoys), forcing the mother to leave the battle to go after her child.
Guybrush and his crew, together with Elaine and Sam arrive on Monkey Island, where they find the monkey idol. Guybrush approaches it, thinking he has found the treasure, but is stopped by an angry horde of monkeys. Sam then saves the day when he returns the Eye of the Monkey, and he is hailed by the monkeys of Monkey Island as a hero. Guybrush still keeps looking for the treasure, but his crew abandons him. Elaine tries to convince him to give up working for LeChuck and just enjoy himself, but deep inside, Guybrush is still a bait-boy, following orders.
Back on his ship, Guybrush encounters zombie LeChuck, who tells him that if he can bring him back the Eye of the Monkey, he can still be a member of his crew. He is hesitant at first, but LeChuck manages to convince him to go back to the island and attempt getting back the jewel. He removes the Eye from its socket again. With all the monkeys and Elaine against him, Guybrush still insists on following his dreams of becoming a pirate. He takes the jewel to LeChuck and his zombie crew. When the ceremony is again performed (using some of Guybrush’s blood against his will), it succeeds. Pirate ships rise up from the ocean everywhere, crewed by skeleton pirates. Some of the ships even fly.
Elaine, together with Guybrush’s crew, attacks LeChuck, but they are no match for the innumerable Dead Sea Pirates. Guybrush then comes to his senses, knowing it’s up to him to do something. He asks Sam to throw him a sword, but all he can find is a fishing rod. While the monkeys battle it out with the pirates, Guybrush manages to snag the jewel from LeChuck using his fishing rod. Brandishing it, he orders the Dead Sea Pirates to stand down for a captain’s duel. Guybrush is on the losing hand when Elaine fires a cannon at LeChuck, which contained not a cannonball, but the baby sea monster who had sneaked in for another flight. The baby’s monster then devours LeChuck.
Sea Pirates to return to their watery graves, which they do (but not before taking some treasure with them). Guybrush returns the Eye of the Monkey to its former place once and for all, and says goodbye to Sam, who has decided to stay with his fellow monkeys on Monkey Island. Guybrush and Elaine embrace aboard the houseboat, and they set off into the sunset, heading for Mêlée Island, cheered on by their crew.
It’s pretty clear that the story has little to do with Pirates of the Caribbean or the Monkey Island games.
In the end Pirates of the Caribbean was released with its own story and a handful of shallow similarities to Monkey Island. These might have been borrowed, they might not have been, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. Curse of Monkey Island was scrapped alongside a Sam & Max feature called Plunge Through Space.
Still, one can’t help but wonder what we lost. One anonymous source with some knowledge of the project seemed to think the cancellation was for the best. Their one word describing the script:
Booklet from the Special Edition. Scans by Nicolas Deneschau.