Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an unlikely classic

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2003)

There’s zero doubt that the Walt Disney Company (soon to employ us all) is a master at using their intellectual property to the fullest. Movies spawn not only toys and clothes, but Happy Meal prizes, as well as characters and rides at Disney theme parks. And they’ve even attempted to turn their original ideas for theme park rides into movies. Despite the charm and detail that goes into each attraction at a Disney park, after a half-dozen attempts, the only ride-to-film adaptation that has become a classic in its own right is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Pirates came out of the longtime partnership that Disney had with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, which ended in 2014. Under the Touchtone and Disney distribution arms, Bruckheimer had produced The Rock, Armageddon, Enemy of the State, Remember the Titans, and Con-AirPirates was an even bigger gamble, a huge effects picture in a genre long out of favor. Previous to this, the only pirate movie that had been a big box office success since 1980 was Hook, which had Spielberg directing, and starred Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, and Dustin Hoffman. And the majority of critics panned it.

Against that, Disney and Bruckheimer were putting up Gore Verbinski, who was coming off directing the hit English language remake of The Ring, Johnny Depp, who had a box office hit 4 years before in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and a critical one the year after in Chocolat, and Geoffrey Rush, possibly best known at that point for following his turn in Shakespeare in Love by playing the Marquis de Sade and Leon Trotsky. Orlando Bloom (already deep in Legolas mode) and Keira Knightley (fresh off Bend It Like Beckham) were the safe choices at the time!

I wanted to give all of this context not just as a reminder of how much of a risk the Mouse Men were taking on with this film ($140 million reported budget), but also how much everyone involved felt like they had to prove.

And prove it they did. Verbinski’s ideas about the tone for the film are a large reason for its success. Having a supernatural element actually heightens the romantic fantastical nature of it while also allowing for some horror-inspired moments that are not based in actual history. The production design gives everything a “lived-in” feel, which is in sharp contrast to the squeaky-clean look of Disney’s 1950s seafaring adventures like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaLeagues is going for a more science-fiction/steampunk vibe, but the dirty clothes and well-worn everything in Pirates of the Caribbean gives the impression of being more grounded in reality and therefore more “modern” than previous films.

The Curse of the Black Pearl also flips the script by making the film about pirates who are trying to return treasure to its rightful place. There’s not so much in the way of treasure maps, but the film really turns up the dial on mutiny. Characters are constantly making and breaking deals, which allows for a constant shift in which characters are allied, and also makes for a variety of scene partners. And all of this is bolstered by the fact that every member of the cast seems to be on the same page as to what kind of movie this is. They are playing to the back row, emulating the enthusiasm of Errol Flynn movies but with just enough self-awareness that the audience knows it’s all in good fun. The moment near the beginning of the film where a too-tight corset makes Knightley’s character faint helps to immediately demonstrate to the audience as to the kind of historical adventure film Black Pearl is going to be.

And then there’s Jack. Well, Captain Jack Sparrow. While I think the film would work fine on its own, Johnny Depp (love him or hate him at this point) is a huge reason for this film’s success. Beyond the tone, it is Depp’s performance that signals that this is something new. It gives the whole film a freshness. Roger Ebert, in his contemporary review, described Sparrow as “original in its every atom. There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie.” He also praised the self-aware nature of the film, which Depp’s performance underlines as the other characters comment on his strangeness. Making the leap from pirate to rock star to specifically Keith Richards is certainly a strange one, but it works equally well playing off Bloom’s straight hero, Knightley’s self-rescuing damsel, and Rush’s performance which is mostly drawn from the theme park ride. And Depp was recognized for his choice (a huge risk that made Disney executives extremely nervous) with a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, and a Jack Sparrow robot added to the original ride.

While the film’s 143-minute runtime was criticized at the time (and while I generally agree that movies are too long), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is not a film where I notice the length. When I watch it, I find it completely enchanting and I lose all sense of time and space outside of the film itself. To me that justifies it as an all-time classic. And while I love the next two films in the franchise, there is a true lightning in a bottle effect with Black Pearl that is impossible to replicate.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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