Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl ★★★★½

Part of My New Year's Cinematic Resolution
Film #21: "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"

When I was younger, I legitimately wanted to become either a pirate or a superhero when I grew up. I didn’t care if it meant I would end up with a noose at my neck, this movie just made it look so cool.

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, this historical fantasy adventure film was released around the world on July 9th, 2003, following a buzzy premiere at the Disneyland Resort. Against many odds, it went on to gross over $654 million at the worldwide box office, along with a number of positive reviews from critics and general audiences- many of whom were shocked at its quality. It went on to stay at the top of overseas markets for 7 weeks in a row and spawned one of Disney’s most popular and lucrative franchises in recent years.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, the film was originally based off of the titular theme park ride in Disneyland. Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot took inspiration from pirate films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and constantly clashed heads with then-CEO Michael Eisner, who questioned whether the film would be better off in theaters or direct-to home video. Despite a relatively quick shooting schedule, the complicated motion capture technology and conflict between Verbinski and Industrial Lights and Magic led to grueling 18-hour days in post-production. It is also notable for being Disney’s first film production ever to receive a PG-13 rating.

Orlando Bloom stars as Will Turner, a blacksmith and skilled swordsman with a huge heart of gold. Following a massive ceremony, his betrothed childhood love Elizabeth Swan, played by Keira Knightley, is kidnapped by a band of pirates with a mysterious condition. Without many options and virtually no help from the British Navy, he relies on the help of a free-spirited, hard-drinking, disgraced pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp. The two set off on the Seven Seas searching for the infamous ship The Black Pearl, all the while steering clear of the pursuing British Armada and dreading the ship’s haunted captain, Hector Barbossa.

With this month in my New Year’s resolution, I just decided to go ahead and revisit a couple of movies I adored when I was younger, rather than something I had never seen before. (Trust me, I have plans for that in December) It’s always a fun process because then I can watch the film with new, older eyes that can help me appreciate aspects I had never really noticed before. Make no mistake, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise got consistently worse as it went on, but the first 3 movies were extremely entertaining for what they were. And no matter what, "The Curse of the Pearl" remains the best of them all, launching a mighty career for its star and redefining what its studio could do.

But for all intents and purposes, this film should not have any right to work nearly as well as it does. A PG-13-rated adventure based off of a fairly popular theme park ride from the same studio that gave us Mary Poppins and Pinnochio? Taken at face value, that whole idea just sounds like a Hollywood recipe for disaster, and many people in the industry were extremely pessimistic on its chances. And now, it has become one of the most iconic and defining film franchises of the early 21st Century. If you look at the landscape of blockbuster movies in the years since its release, especially those produced by Disney, the structure has become something of a template- for better or for worse.

In all honesty, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom aren’t very memorable in their roles. Both are meant to be odes to characters in an Errol Flynn epic, but aren’t really able to break out of those molds. For what it’s worth, though, they are able to adapt to the comedic timing and wit found throughout. Geoffrey Rush is excellent and having a wonderful time as Captain Hector Barbossa, a pirate with a bitterness and love of apples. He chews the scenery as we gradually learn what’s going on with him and his crew on the titular ship, something that’s both slightly tragic and absurd.

And yeah, you’ve got a supporting cast of Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Lee Arenberg, and Mackenzie Cook, but they all completely pale in comparison to Johnny Depp’s star-making performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. This is the second time this year where I find myself praising Depp in spite of his deeply troubling public issues, but it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t entranced by his iconic turn. Inspired in part by Keith Richards, (Who makes a delightful cameo in the third movie) he completely loses himself as a stumbling, alcoholic, yet unexpectedly cunning pirate who’s not devoid of a moral compass. His unusual movement and speech make for some very funny moments throughout the film. The first film also earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, a very impressive feat considering everything else.

Elsewhere, the technical side of "The Curse of the Black Pearl" show a surprisingly sufficient film with tons of bite. Shot by Dariusz Wolski, loves to use a number of sweeping wides and tracking shots during action scenes, really bringing out a sense of grand adventure in the viewer. It also helps that the film used real sail ships, costumes and weapons, meaning a lot of things were actually captured in-camera.

The editing is a triple-job done by Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin, and Arthur Schmidt, all of whom do good work on bringing the whole thing together. They cut together the action scenes and visual effects in gloriously satisfying manners, never skimping on any good details. It also knows how to drag out a good shot for comedic effect, as there are a lot of physical gags found in the movie. However, they could’ve definitely trimmed some fat off, as its runtime of 2 hours and 23 minutes feels bloated.

Klaus Badelt, with a bit of help from Hans Zimmer, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. It remains one of the most memorable scores of any feature film in the last 20 years, with an iconic sound on par with any adventure flick you’ve seen from the 20th Century. The famous main theme, “He’s a Pirate,” serves as the backbone for the entire soundtrack, a booming anthem of brass, percussion, and orchestral strings. Other tracks are equally foreboding and jovial, trading something as dynamic as cello jigs for percussive, choral suspense. It’s a soundtrack I have listened to for many years, and will continue to do so.

With memorable characters, impressive set pieces, and an immortal soundtrack, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is a fun adventure with loads of swashbuckling charm and personality. You’d be hard-pressed to find a film in recent memory that defied more expectations than this one. Yes, it’s very indulgent and a little too long, but it still delivers after multiple rewatches and never loses sight of what it is.

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