- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) movie review: As a Keith Richards-ZaSu Pitts compound, Johnny Depp puts his penchant for offbeat characters to good use in Gore Verbinski’s generally entertaining mix of old-fashioned Hollywood swashbuckling and early 21st-century Hollywood bombast.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl received five Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Johnny Depp), Best Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Make-Up.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl movie review: Long but mostly enjoyable Johnny Depp showcase
Starring Johnny Depp, Gore Verbinski’s generally well-received 2003 period adventure blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a cinematic anomaly – at least when it comes to big-budget American productions.
After all, pirate movies – a Hollywood staple from the mid-1920s (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Black Pirate) to the 1950s (The Crimson Pirate, The Golden Hawk, The Buccaneer) – had become a thing of the distant past. In fact, by the early 1960s the genre had been mostly relegated to Italian-made B flicks (The Son of Captain Blood, Tiger of the Seven Seas, Hercules and the Black Pirates).
With one single exception – Steven Spielberg’s 1991 box office hit Hook – sporadic resurrections in the last three decades have turned out to be critical and/or commercial bombs (Swashbuckler, The Pirates of Penzance, Cutthroat Island), something that didn’t bode well for the Walt Disney Company’s $140 million film “adaptation” of one of their theme-park rides.
But Neptune’s mood has apparently improved with the arrival of the new century. He has smiled – or rather, grinned – on The Curse of the Black Pearl, a mostly enjoyable romp that not only became one of the biggest international box office hits of the year but also earned Johnny Depp his first Academy Award nomination, in addition to four other nods.
All but negligible plot
The flimsy The Curse of the Black Pearl storyline – Jerry Bruckheimer productions (Top Gun, Pearl Harbor) don’t allow character and/or plot complexities to get in their way – traces the fate of Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), daughter of Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) of Port Royal, Jamaica, after she is kidnapped by a band of pirates led by the fearsome Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).
Although Elizabeth has been promised to navy officer James Norrington (Jack Davenport), amorous blacksmith apprentice/swordsman Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is the one who sets out to rescue her from the bowels of Captain Barbossa’s ship, the Black Pearl.
Enter an eccentrically fey ship captain, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), whose vessel has just sunk without a trace. It turns out that Captain Barbossa and Captain Sparrow are old enemies – and that the evil Barbossa and his crew are suffering the effects of a horrific curse that has turned them into the undead.
Inevitably, Will and Sparrow join forces to fight the ghostly pirates and save their lady-in-distress from a fate much, but much worse than plain, old-fashioned death.
Almost – but not quite – ‘movie magic’
Fresh off the commercially successful horror flick The Ring, Gore Verbinski demonstrates that he has the right touch for this sort of mindless entertainment – to the point that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, cliched boy-rescues-girl narrative and all, nearly reaches the rarefied realm of “movie magic.”
True, the enchantment felt while watching Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood or Rouben Mamoulian’s The Mark of Zorro (two “land pirate” movies) is missing here; excessive length is an issue, while the sense of fun feels a tad laborious at times. Yet The Curse of the Black Pearl undeniably has multifarious qualities.
In addition to Verbinski’s overall handling of the proceedings, these include lively sword fights (even if nothing quite as thrilling as the Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power vs. Basil Rathbone duels in Robin Hood and Zorro), bits of witty dialogue (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio received final screenplay credit), state-of-the-art special effects, hammy-yet-humorous acting, and even a girl-rescues-boy episode that should please the most jaded of filmgoers.
Johnny Depp & Geoffrey Rush ‘made to order’
In regard to the hammy acting, Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush – two performers ever ready to devour the scenery around them – are let loose in this one.
Surprisingly, they manage to walk on their respective histrionic tightropes, mugging and gesticulating all the way through, without ever falling off. Since Depp and Rush are impersonating borderline-cartoonish characters, their grandiose acting styles – this time without any hint of self-importance – are made to order.
Depp’s amusingly amoral Jack Sparrow, the long-lost offspring of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and limp-wristed Old Hollywood comedienne ZaSu Pitts, is particularly effective. (According to reports, Depp’s inspirations were Richards and Pepe LePew.)
Not even as the aberrantly awful director Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s 1994 “biopic” has the actor created such a cleverly delineated specimen of homo bizarrus, flawless low-class British accent and all.
To boot, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl presents the would-be Tyrone Power of the early 21st century: A new and improved Orlando Bloom, who cuts as dashing a figure as the star of The Black Swan. Gone are the fake blond hair and the vapid stare that had marred Bloom’s work in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Sword & simian epic
Now, films featuring in-depth character observations and intricate plots just might get away with a running time longer than two hours. Empty-headed adventure movies, however, should be considerably shorter.
With a running time of almost two and a half hours, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl does overstay its welcome. Editors Stephen E. Rivkin, Arthur Schmidt, and Craig Wood could easily have excised a good 20 minutes from the film without any significant loss to the narrative or characters.
That said, when Johnny Depp starts lisping, Geoffrey Rush begins to spit venom, Orlando Bloom grabs his sword, and Klaus Badelt’s rousing music plays at full throttle, all is forgiven.
Besides, how many movies, whether on land or on water, boasts in its cast a sprightly zombie monkey?
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Director: Gore Verbinski.
Screenplay: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.
From a screen story by Stuart Beattie & Jay Wolpert.
Cast: Johnny Depp. Geoffrey Rush. Orlando Bloom. Keira Knightley. Jack Davenport. Jonathan Pryce. Lee Arenberg. Mackenzie Crook. Kevin McNally. Zoe Saldana.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Movie (2003) Review” endnotes
Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl movie images: Walt Disney Studios.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: Nimble Depp” last updated in September 2021.