Hey Everybody! Welcome to another review from Flickmuncher.com. Sorry it’s been so long since my last review. Between work and the madness of the holidays there hasn’t been a whole lot of time for me to get these reviews out. However, I am excited for the next few upcoming months as I will be doing a series of retrospectives on some of my favorite movies and episodes of anime and TV shows so I hope you’ll tune in for those when they come out.
Today we’ll be taking a look back at a movie from the early 2000s in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It’s rather strange for me to review a movie that I saw as a kid as a “Golden Oldy”. Kind of reminds me how old I am now I guess. But here’s a bit of backstory on this movie: The year is 2003. Hollywood has just started to recover from the dark reign of disaster epics like Independence Day, Deep Impact, and Twister. Movies are starting to feel fun again with the appearance of fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, and are starting to see hopeful characters in the form of Spiderman and the X-Men movies.
It is a time when ideas that Hollywood execs would have laughed out of the building on principle five years before are becoming the golden children of the cinema. Yet despite that, the idea that inspired this movie was so corny that even I would have had doubts about allowing it to be made. I mean really, a movie about pirates based off of an amusement park ride? Are you serious? To make matters worse, the pirate genre as a whole had not performed well up to that point. The most recent wide releases of the genre—1999s Treasure Island by Peter Rowe and Disney’s Treasure Planet, also 1999—did not perform well at the box office and the last one that did decently was 1996s Muppet Treasure Island (hardly a serious pirate movie). So it was generally assumed that this Disney movie based on a (rather boring if we’re being honest) amusement park ride, would be a flop just like all the others.
Yet somehow, amid all the naysaying, it managed to become the fourth highest grossing movie of the year in a year that included blockbusters like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Finding Nemo. And its success wasn’t just commercial but critical as well. Johnny Depp even received an Oscar nomination for his iconic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. How was this possible? Had popular culture just lost their collective minds to temporary insanity or was this film truly that good? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.
So what’s the plot? Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is a drunken wandering buccaneer who winds up in the coastal settlement of Port Royal while looking for his ship. In the process of searching for a vessel to stea- er…commandeer, he ends up saving the lovely daughter of Port Royal’s governor, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly), from drowning. Unfortunately, the locals don’t take kindly to pirates wandering around their town and in spite of his good deed Jack is arrested and sentenced to hang. Fortunately for him, the town is attacked shortly thereafter by a group of much less friendly marauders from the mythical and eponymous Black Pearl. The pirates, led by the savvy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), kidnap Elizabeth who is in possession of a gold piece that seems to be particularly valuable to them. Jack pursues the seafaring raiders with the aid of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a childhood friend of Elizabeth’s, leading them across the sea in an adventure with swords, guns, and an undead curse for good measure.
There’s a common misconception in Hollywood and among storytellers in general, that if you make a story more complicated then it magically becomes a better story because they think they’re adding complexity. But the reality is that complicated and complex stories are two different things. Imagine if you were packing up a box with ping pong balls until you completely covered the bottom of the box. But rather than fill up the entire box, you went to get another box and only filled the bottom of that box as well. That’s making things more complicated.
Curse of the Black Pearl is an example of the opposite case. It takes a relatively simple premise—cursed pirates wish to lift said curse—and takes full advantage of it by giving the different characters personality and conflicting motives. Jack’s desire to reclaim the Black Pearl at any costs butts up against Will’s simple desire to rescue Elizabeth and return home and Barbossa’s desire to be rid of the curse that has plagued him for ten years. Any competent storyteller will tell you that the core of drama is conflict. The more conflict there is between the characters, the more drama is derived. Of course, as is the case with later entries in the Pirates franchise, this principle can be used too much or used poorly. However, Black Pearl succeeds at hitting the right balance of drama between the characters and their personalities that made us all fall in love with the franchise when it first appeared.
And speaking of characters, this movie revels in creating fun characters with great personality. Some of them can be pretty rote—such as Will and an annoyingly stern Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport)—but their dryness is more than made up for by the other pirates. Standouts include Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally) the classic yarn-spinning seafarer, and Pintel and Ragetti (Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook respectively) a sort of pirate version of Laurel and Hardy. The other pirates don’t get as much screen-time but are equally memorable if only by virtue of their designs.
The real jewels of this cast though are obviously Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s turn as Barbossa. Seriously, these characters are so well written and acted that they own every scene they’re in. Much has been written and said about Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp’s rather unique take on the typical pirate Captain, and there’s little I think I can add to that conversation so I won’t belabor the point. However, if a hero is only as good as his villain then Jack Sparrow was well served to have Barbossa as his antagonist. I’m personally of the opinion that Geoffrey Rush is one of the most underrated actors of his generation and Barbossa is a major reason why. He helps turn what could have been a rather cartoonish bad-guy (cough Lone Ranger cough) into a menacing, unyielding, yet strangely sympathetic villain who wants to feel the joys of life again. Also, he manages to say the classic pirate “Aaaarrrgghh” line and have neither himself nor the audience crack up at it. That takes some good acting to pull off.
Beyond this though, the movie is possessing of some really fun action, with swashbuckling sword fights that are very well choreographed and a ship to ship battle the scale of which is reminiscent of pirate films of yesteryear like Seahawk and Captain Blood. I especially love the attention to detail during these scenes. For instance, if you’re paying attention, you can see the trails of musket shot and cannon balls rocketing over the characters heads. Details like this help lend the entire film an atmosphere of excitement and thrills that is hard to find in movies today.
That said it’s not a perfect movie. For one thing, the character of Commodore Norrington isn’t interesting in the slightest. Granted it’d be tough for him to measure up against the likes of Jack and Barbossa but as a secondary antagonist he falls prey to severe blandness until the last five minutes and is a pretty stereotypical British (rolling the “r” there) Colonial type that Hollywood loves to portray as having zero emotions because he’s so “civil”. That kind of portrayal being a personal pet peeve of mine I didn’t care for him at all despite the potential he had to be an interesting character in his own right. He would get more interesting as a character in later movies but as far as this one is concerned he just fell flat.
A similar situation could be said for Will Turner, who definitely has a more interesting character arc through the movie but also starts out rather boring, and ultimately makes some really stupid decisions for the sake of advancing the plot, which Jack even points out as being stupid decisions at various points in the film. And just to be clear, when a film admits that something about itself is stupid or incompetent does not make it any less stupid or incompetent. Admitting it means the filmmakers knew it was stupid or incompetent and did it anyway! I don’t hold that against this film but it is an observation of films in general these days that I have no doubt I’ll be discussing again at some point.
Besides that I will admit that while the action sequences are still a ton of fun to watch, the CGI for Black Pearl has not aged well. With the technology we see in movies today, it’s hard not to look at this and see the proverbial strings. Still it was made at a time when the technology we see today was still evolving and to its credit the skeleton pirates in Black Pearl were probably instrumental as a stepping stone to such spectacles as Avatar and the Transformers movies. But it still looks like something you’d see in a PS2 video game cutscene at certain points.
Conclusion: I first watched this movie when I was about twelve years old and at the time my two favorite movies were Hook and The Lord of the Rings so I was the perfect audience for this film. When the end credits came on and the amazing theme song (an impossibly underrated score in my opinion) started playing, the first thing I wanted to do was run outside to the playset in the backyard and duel with my brother on the imaginary spars of a Spanish Galleon, I was so excited.
Fast forward fifteen years and watching it again with the cynicism of adulthood, I definitely see more flaws but the movie that gave me that sense of adventure and excitement is still there and in some ways I enjoy it more now that I am older. And that’s what great adventure movies are supposed to do. They carry you away on that adventure to a place and time where, for a little while at least, your own day-to-day problems don’t matter so much. At one point Jack says that what the Black Pearl means to him is freedom. Freedom to see what lies beyond the horizon that always seems to taunt us with our own curiosity.
For that, I’ll happily board the Black Pearl any day.
So, what did you think of the review? Did you agree or disagree with my analysis? What parts stuck out to you? Let me know all about it on Facebook or in the comments below. Thanks and as always, May the Flick be with You!