2000s, 3/4, Gore Verbinski, Review

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) - IMDb

#2 in my ranking of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

I remember when this movie came out in 2003. It was a bit of a cultural phenomenon just thrilling people left and right. I saw it in theaters at the time and thought it was a generally fun adventure movie with a strong visual sense brought by this guy with a weird name, Gore Verbinski. I never saw the rapturous experience that others of my generation seemed to get from it, and here I am, twenty years later, after occasionally watching it from time to time, wondering about the difference in opinion. Well, I still think it’s a perfectly fine adventure tale, and I think I understand why I’ve been kind of muted in response compared to many other people.

The film isn’t an ensemble picture, Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner is very much the main character and protagonist, but it’s so ungainly in focus that it ends up feeling like one. One of the film’s strengths, that it actually takes time with some of its characters to give them some level of depth, actually, I think, ends up working slightly against the film because there are so many different competing ideas at play all throughout that the film ends up being about several different things at once while never really giving any of the ideas the kind of attention it needs to develop in an interesting direction. It’s just a silly adventure movie, though, why should it matter? Well, it matters when the movie itself introduces these ideas, treats them seriously for several minutes, and then drops them completely.

I see three big ideas that movie is trying to address to some degree or another. The first is the idea of fables growing from real stories, like the dreaded tales of the Black Pearl or, most particularly, the stories of Jack Sparrow’s (Johnny Depp) past. The second is the idea of a ship being freedom. The third is the most interesting of the three, the idea of pirates, creatures of the physical, material, and sensual, being doomed to spend eternity without any sensation whatsoever. The first would be best for a simple adventure story, the second gets all kinds of mixed up with the idea of piracy being a moral good (which is how the film ends, making it super weird), and the third would be best for something a bit less swashbuckling. All three together, though, create a mishmash of ideas that just cause thematic confusion in a movie that really should just be about the swashbuckling.

Anyway, the movie itself is about the adventures of lovelorn Will Turner trying to get back the object of his affection Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) after she’s kidnapped by the ghost pirates of the Black Pearl led by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) while the British Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) is also in pursuit with Swann’s father, the governor (Jonathan Pryce). There’s an island that can’t be found except by those who already know where it is, cursed Aztek gold, piracy, ship battles, and a lot of sword fights with unkillable skeleton monsters.

I have a theory on how the majority of people enjoy films, and it’s pretty much exclusively about plot. Most people want a plot they can’t predict but still makes sense, first and foremost from their entertainments. Interesting characters are secondary while themes and style are simply not important to most. Well, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl delivers on that kind of entertainment. Boiled down to its essence, the plot isn’t that complicated about a boy trying to get back his girl, but the script by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott introduces so many double crosses, twists, and turns that audiences, especially on first viewings, are left guessing, feeling like the movie is really smart. There is intelligence to the intricate nature of the plotting, how everything gets set up and paid off, that is fairly satisfying, but I always find that a thin kind of entertainment. I’m not denying that it works, I’m just saying that it’s amusing but not that fun.

Where the fun really comes in is through performances. Johnny Depp in his Academy Award nominated role brings a levity to the film that is honestly sorely needed considering how often the film gets kind of ponderous especially in the beginning. Rush takes to his tortured role of Barbossa with incredible relish, savoring every exaggerated syllable as he speaks. Orlando Bloom is fine as the straight man in all this, providing us the grounding in the adventure, while Kiera Knightley is both pretty and a bit feisty as Elizabeth.

The action is also clear, energetic, and propulsive, rarely falling into repetition with a lot of variety in how things get done with good use of special effects on the ghosts. Visually, the movie is often quite just nice to look at, providing a certain painterly aspect to key shots like the pirates walking along the seafloor to overtake a ship.

There’s a lot to recommend in the film, and it’s a fun overall experience. However, it’s bumpy along the way. I’d be entertained by a supercut of the film that was just every time someone said the word “pirate”, showcasing the super-serious take on the word that oozes out of most people’s mouths (especially Davenport as Norrington), providing an oddly serious air to the internal world of the film that seems caught between realism and fantasy. Also, the conflicting ideas that never really get time to shine (and the really odd way the movie excuses piracy at the end as well) move the film in directions it’s uninterested in actually pursuing. Still, the buckles are swashed good and fun.

Rating: 3/4

7 thoughts on “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”

  1. To be honest, I feel like the mess of ideas works kind of well. It fires them quick, only bungles the ones I’m willing to suspend my disbelief on (pirates being the good guys) considering the rest of the fun, and doesn’t linger. It’s a mess, but it adds a veneer of depth I don’t feel bogged down by.

    It might be -better- with a stronger focused, simpler and well executed single idea or two. But it could also realistically be worse if it wasn’t executed well. I like what we got.

    Concur on the level of enjoyment though. Fun, definitely fun, lots to pick at, but not The Best Thing Ever.


    1. I wonder if it could be “fixed” with just some simple pruning. Editing down certain scenes to be less prominent so that these moments feel less like grand thematic gestures and more like just character moments. I’d still complain about there being a lack of a core idea running the whole thing, but I think I could conceivably had more fun with it. Take off like 5-10 minutes, perhaps.


  2. I checked my webzone and it seems I’ve never written a review of this movie. Eh.

    This IS the best in the series. I enjoyed it, saw it in theaters and at home on DVD. For me it was a lot of fun with just enough darkness to surprise me in a Disney movie. There’s some almost scary shit in this movie, though the series will eventually turn into a bad cartoon of itself, this one is all right.

    The movie works almost in spite of itself. Orlando Bloom is a very dull main character, he’d be even worse as a sidekick. It’s funny how a guy who was cast and performed so well as Legolas for Peter Jackson has stumbled at every other role he’s been given. Likewise Kiera Knightly was picked for her looks and her momentary fame…both of which are slight and not long-lived, not her acting ability. The period and setting are terrible, jarring to anyone who knows anything about history, historical pirates or the Royal Navy. It’s based on a Disney theme park ride, for crying out loud.

    And yet. And yet….

    There is flair here. Visually interesting camera work and situation reveals shows that Gore Verbinski is not a hack fraud. Neither is Dariusz Wolski, the D of P. (We’ll forgive his work on Prometheus because he also shot Dark City)

    You have good SFX, particularly in the ghost pirate scenes. You have Geoffrey Rush, who seems to be from that stock of British actors who learn to act, then perform, then star on stage and screen. (in other words, he’s good)

    And then you have Johnny Depp. I’m not sure how good an actor he is, honestly. He’s a drunkard but so are legends like Oliver Reed and Richard Burton. In here, he’s famously channeling Keith Richards, given a little extra dandy flair and just a little seasoning of competence and seriousness. Which is good, because his Captain Jack Sparrow is the real protagonist of the movie.

    Seriously. I could go on at length, but Jack is the main character. Not Orlando Bloom. His is the A plot, his are the real needs that drive the story, his is the risk, the costs, the suffering. He gets all the good lines, all the good scenes and resolves the conflict.


    1. * *Geoffrey Rush “AGREED” meme.gif* *

      Even if now the most anyone recalls of the film are the memes… well, there’s a reason moments like that become memes – they work, they’re great visuals, and even in cases where they’re not enough to elevate the surrounding material, they work as stepping stones to get you across from start to end without getting your boots TOO wet.

      (This is where I’d insert the amazing shot of Johnny Depp smoothly stepping off the crow’s nest of his rapidly-sinking ship onto the dock, like we’d step off an escalator.)

      Like you wrote – this was a theme park ride, and they made it into a fine movie. That’s not easy. Alas, that won battle led to the lost war of a (shudder) franchise. Best to just sit back and enjoy Depp telling his crew to bring him the horizon, and imagine that he caught it in the end.


    2. Keira is one of those actresses who can be molded into a good performance. Her work on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement with Joe Wright are evidence of that, I think. But left on her own, she doesn’t really seem to know what to do other than smile or pout, like when she worked with Tony Scott in Domino.

      The cast overall, in retrospect, honestly feels like a cheap way to find up and coming talent (along with noted actor without box office pull who probably didn’t cost that much on the first film, Johnny Depp). It’s one step removed from a CW production that way. Keira’s biggest “hit” up to that point had been Bend it Like Beckham, an indie darling. And Depp feels like just the right match of actor to role, which he pushed as far as Disney would allow. It’s like finding the perfect kid to play a role. He may not actually be a good actor, but he can exist in that particular sliver of emotional space really well. Depp as never really impressed me in anything else. He actually just kind of seems lazy to me.


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