'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' — THR's 2003 Review

This Jerry Bruckheimer production earned Johnny Depp a surprise Oscar nomination and earned $305.4 million domestically.
This Jerry Bruckheimer production earned Johnny Depp a surprise Oscar nomination and earned $305.4 million domestically.

On June 28, 2003, Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films brought the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie to audiences nationwide.

Director Gore Verbinski's adaptation of the Disneyland ride opened to $13.5 million, marking the best Wednesday opening of the year. The Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley starrer went on to put $305.4 million domestically in its box office treasure chest and would earn Depp an Oscar nomination for his now-iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:

Since the previous Walt Disney Co. film based on one of its theme park attractions was the unbearable The Country BearsPirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is surprisingly not bad. For one thing, the filmmakers draw upon the entire legend and lore of pirate life — of high-seas ambushes, mountains of gold, cruel captains, lusty rogues, feisty damsels, drunken sailors, barroom brawls, ancient curses and furious sword fights. So the film pays bemused tribute not only to one of Disneyland’s most popular rides but those old swash-bucklers who once graced movie screens. 

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are mostly associated with animation, and this is one time when a cartoon approach in live action is exactly right: The movie’s flamboyant personalities and tongue-in-cheek action push the envelope of high camp without ever succumbing to sheer silliness.

This $100 million-plus production, stylishly directed by Gore Verbinski and lavishly produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, has the makings of one of the summer’s big hits.

The film includes a number of "scenes" from the Disneyland ride, such as the imprisoned pirates trying to coax a dog carrying a jailhouse key toward their cell to a raucous tavern featuring zaftig serving wenches.

But the smartest borrowing — and one of the best of the 600-old visual effects shots — is the living skeletons.

The curse of the title occurs when black-hearted Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) relieves fellow pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) not only of his command but his ship, the Black Pearl, and its treasure, leaving him to die on a tiny isle. Sparrow mysteriously survives and, as the movie opens, sails into Port Royal harbor in little more than a dinghy.

What Sparrow doesn’t learn until later is that the Pearls’ treasure carries a curse that dooms his former crew to sail the seas as the undead. Only moonlight reveals them as living skeletons.

The Pearl attacks Port Royal, just after Sparrow arrives, to retrieve a gold medallion. This is the last piece of the plundered treasure. If the treasure is completely restored along with the payment of a “blood debt,” the curse will lift. The crew also kidnaps the medallions’ owner, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), daughter of the governor (Jonathan Pryce). Two men pursue the Black Pearl, hoping to rescue this beauteous damsel: Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith and childhood friend secretly in love with her, and haughty Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), who fancies himself her fiance.

Despite his loathing of pirates, Will joins forces with Sparrow. The duo hijacks the fastest ship in the British fleet and sets sail for the Isla de Muerta, where the pirates hope to break their curse.

This sets up a series of set pieces of comic action and effects — the attack on Port Royal, the escape of Sparrow and Will, sea battles between the Black Pearl and other vessels, no less than two climaxes in a torch-lit island cave and, most impressively, moonlit battles between British sailors and pirate skeletons.

Actors try out a range of salty brogues that pitches much of the dialogue in a sea of confusing accents. However, Depp takes the opposite approach with precise enunciation of every line in what is best described as an accent-less accent. Depp plays his charming rascal in the lightheaded manner of a man who has either been in the sun too long or knows something no one else does. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Rush zeroes in on the comedy in his wily villain. Knightley continues to display the athleticism exhibited in Bend It Like Beckham as a damsel who is able and willing to fight and escape with the best of men. In the closest thing to a straight man in the movie, Bloom attacks his role with the pent-up fury of a man who only hates pirates because pirate blood races in his veins.

The large cast, costumed and made up as a fitly scalawags and sinister buccaneers, gives tremendous energy to every scene. There are many solid gags among this motley crew — the pirate forever chasing his false eye, the parrot trained to speak for its mute master, the series of fetching wenches who deliver slaps to Sparrow for past wrongs.

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Brian Morris manage to convey the giddy feel of the original Disneyland ride — that we are in a dark world, where we may safely gasp and giggle at its outlandish villainy and savage avarice. Klaus Badelt’s music is at times over the top, but he takes his cue from a production that banishes all subtlety.

Next up in Disney’s self-looting is The Haunted Mansion in November. Let’s just hope they never tackle “It’s a Small World.” — Kirk Honeycutt

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