Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
Download at i-tunes Download on iTunes
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Davenport, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Damian O'Hare, Zoe Saldana, Martin Klebba
Written by: Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, based on a story by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for action/adventure violence
Running Time: 143
Date: 06/28/2003

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

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Booty and a Feast

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When the summer of 2003 began, one of its least interesting cinematic prospects was a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced version of a famous amusement park ride. Now, as we near the season's halfway mark, this very same picture not only wildly surpasses its poor expectations, but also stands tall as one of the very best summer movies of all time. For me, the pinnacle of summer entertainment was Raiders of the Lost Ark, in 1981. It came the closest to capturing the feel of playing on a hot day, imaginations raging and creating adventures, chases, fights, leaps and bounds, telling feverish stories to friends. Nowadays, I can't reasonably expect a movie to surpass Raiders (partly because I'm all grown up) but if a summer movie comes anywhere close, I'm very pleased. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl comes very, very close. It moves like a sweet-scented and slightly ticklish breeze.

We owe most of this to Johnny Depp, who plays his first lead role in his first big-budget mainstream blockbuster, and he doesn't just chew the scenery. He chews, rolls it around in his mouth, savors it, rests it under his tongue, and spits out the bones. As Captain Jack Sparrow, he has one of the great entrances in modern adventure movies, standing high on the crow's nest, riding a sinking ship to port and casually stepping onto the dock at the very last moment. The former captain of a pirate ship, Sparrow has survived a mutiny and now looks to requisition a new vessel.

But the local governor's daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley from Bend It Like Beckham) owns the last remaining skull-head coin from Cortez's collection. When she and the coin accidentally fall into the water, the pirates of the ship the Black Pearl, captained by Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), storm the port, kidnap Elizabeth and steal the coin. Fortunately, talented blacksmith (and pirate's son) Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is in love with Elizabeth and does not wish to let her get away. He enlists Sparrow's help to chase her. Unfortunately for Turner, a high-ranking soldier (Jack Davenport from the BBC's "Coupling") in her father's army is already betrothed to her. Normally, this character is a twit with annoying habits, but this time he's actually a reasonable opposition.

It gets crazier. Barbosa's pirates are cursed and walk the earth as the undead. The moonlight exposes their true selves -- creepy moving skeletons covered in the sparsest layer of rotting flesh. Only restoring the complete collection of coins (along with a little blood) will break the curse. Meanwhile, characters jump from ship to ship, cross swords with each other, laugh and shout. Sparrow and Elizabeth even get drunk together on an old stash of rum and sing pirate songs while awaiting rescue from a desert island.

Moreover, Pirates is cleverly and consistently funny. The screenwriting team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Small Soldiers, The Mask of Zorro) actually get some decent one-liners and character bits in the movie, and remarkably, not all of them belong to Depp. Both the good guys and the bad guys have a goofy pair of misfit foot soldiers who treat each other like married couples, stuck together far too long and annoyed by each other's little tics. In addition, Rush manages to put some humor and humanity into his evil pirate, avoiding the cardboard moustache-twirling villain Bruckheimer usually throws into his movies. And beautiful Knightley adds new layers to her damsel-in-distress role, nearly suffocating under the constricting pressure of a corset and stealing a knife from the dinner table, aping Karen Allen's tough-guy act in Raiders.

All this works because Bruckheimer has finally hired a director familiar with making good movies. Gore Verbinski is no Orson Welles, but with his films The Mexican and The Ring he has shown a good sense of pace and atmosphere. Even at a bulky 135 minutes, Pirates is crisp and light and never dull. But Depp is unquestionably the movie's heart. His most kindred spirit in the history of movies is the master of disguise Lon Chaney; the more stuff Depp gets to wear in a movie, the happier he seems to be. Here he's covered in bandanas, kerchiefs, a leather hat, eye makeup, rings, bracelets, tatters of gloves, braids, beads, dangly things, big boots and gunk smeared all over his teeth. Comfortable in his disguise, he adopts a sneering English accent and wobbles along in a slightly effeminate manner, grabbing snippets of his past performances in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chocolat and Don Juan DeMarco.

The Academy rarely recognizes summer movies, but I hope they remember Depp's delirious performance and give him his long overdue first nomination. Meanwhile, Verbinski is at the helm, having fun splashing around in everything from Cecil B. DeMille epics to The Adventures of Robin Hood to the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark and wraps it all up in a sunny afternoon, a refreshing swim and a trip to Disneyland.

Disney's 2-disc DVD set boasts some 10 hours of extras including deleted scenes, bloopers, several commentary tracks by the director, actors, writers, etc., plus mini-documentaries, DVD-Rom features and the whole kit and kaboodle. In November of 2004, Disney inexplicably re-released its excellent 2-disc set packaged with a third, "Lost" DVD. This new disc comes with eight bonus features including: Johnny Depp talking about his boyhood dream of playing a pirate, a short about building the ship, a featurette about the monkey, Geoffrey Rush talking about his role, a comparison of the various language dubbing jobs from all over the world, the DVD-Rom feature about the Disneyland ride (previously only available to PC owners) and more. I can't understand why Disney would blow this release now and not wait until the inevitable sequel hits theaters. See also: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007), and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

Movies Unlimtied