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

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #70

Prepare to be blown out of the water.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 143 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 9th July 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 8th August 2003
First Seen: cinema, August 2003

Stars
Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Finding Neverland)
Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings, Troy)
Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham, Pride & Prejudice)
Geoffrey Rush (Quills, The King’s Speech)

Director
Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Lone Ranger)

Screenwriters
Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides)
Terry Rossio (Small Soldiers, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)

Story by
Ted Elliott (Treasure Planet, National Treasure: Book of Secrets)
Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, The Lone Ranger)
Stuart Beattie (Collateral, 30 Days of Night)
Jay Wolpert (The Count of Monte Cristo)

Based on
Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme park ride at Disneyland.

The Story
When feared pirate ship the Black Pearl lays siege to the British outpost Port Royal and kidnaps the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann, her childhood friend (and secret admirer) Will Turner teams up with notorious pirate Captain Jack Sparrow to rescue her. Jack has his own axe to grind with the crew of the Pearl, who are afflicted by a supernatural curse that they believe Elizabeth may be the key to breaking.

Our Heroes
Will Turner, a humble blacksmith and self-taught expert swordsman. Doesn’t like pirates, but is forced to team up with one. That would be self-proclaimed captain Jack Sparrow, who is apparently a bumbling buffoon prone to wild exaggeration about his exploits, but is actually strangely competent and honourable. Not to forget Elizabeth Swann, the governor’s daughter who is more strong-minded and capable than women of her time are supposed to be. Hates corsets, too.

Our Villains
Captain Barbossa (a villain of Rickman-esque likeability) and his undead pirate crew just want to lift their terrible curse, but, being pirates, tend to go about that mission with excessive violence.

Best Supporting Character
Two of Barbossa’s crew, Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) and Pintel (Lee Arenberg), who make a comedy double act. Or maybe triple act, with Ragetti’s wooden eye.

Memorable Quote
“You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner… you’re in one!” — Barbossa

Memorable Scene
Barbossa orders his crew to attack a British Navy ship from underwater. As the moon emerges from behind a cloud to reveal the true skeletal form of the undead crew, they march along the seabed to their target…

Memorable Music
Originally set to be scored by Alan Silvestri, who’d worked with director Gore Verbinski on a couple of previous movies, the composer fell out with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and it was decided to go with Hans Zimmer instead. Unfortunately Zimmer was busy, but he pointed them in the direction of newer composer Klaus Badelt, one of Zimmer’s mentees at his company Media Ventures. Presumably Badelt struggled, because Zimmer ended up drafting several of the score’s main themes in one night, and a team of additional composers (anywhere from seven to fifteen, depending which source you listen to) was brought in to help finish it off. (One of them, incidentally, was Ramin Djawadi, who has since gone on to be noticed for Game of Thrones.) The final score is credited to Badelt, but the soundtrack’s most famous cue — He’s a Pirate — is actually a development of a piece Zimmer wrote for forgotten Wesley Snipes action-thriller Drop Zone. You can’t really argue a score created like that has any artistic integrity, but it’s fun and exciting, and He’s a Pirate is a really, really good piratical action theme.

Truly Special Effect
All of the CGI was strikingly photo-real at the time, the main showcase being the skeletal pirates, especially as they switched from being normal humans to skeletons (and back again) as they moved in and out of the moonlight. I guess it’s aged a little now, but, to be fair, it is 13 years old. Couple this with the even-better work featured in the sequels and it shows ILM are still at the forefront of the industry.

Making of
There’s always been something of a tonal similarity between the Pirates films and the Monkey Island series of computer games, which turned out to be more than coincidence when it eventually emerged that, just a couple of years before Pirates, screenwriter Ted Elliott had been working on a Monkey Island film for Steven Spielberg which never came to fruition. As if to compound the point, Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert revealed in 2004 that the original game was inspired by the novel On Stranger Tides, and in 2007 Disney bought the rights to the novel and used its title and bits of its plot for the fourth Pirates film.

Next time…
Initially followed by a pair of shot-back-to-back trilogy-forming sequels, their cumulative success turned it into a franchise: a fourth movie followed in 2011, with a fifth shot last year for release next summer. Also inspired a host of piratical TV series, and Disney to attempt various other ride adaptations and genre mash-ups (see: The Lone Ranger).

Awards
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Johnny Depp), Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects)
1 BAFTA (Make Up/Hair)
4 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Johnny Depp), Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Costumes)
10 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Johnny Depp), Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Director, Music, Make Up, Special Effects, DVD Special Edition, Genre Face of the Future (Keira Knightley))
2 MTV Movie Awards Mexico (Sexiest Hero (Orlando Bloom), Best Look (Johnny Depp))
1 World Stunt Award (Best Fight for the blacksmith shop sword fight)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“it’s Johnny Depp’s inspired turn as Captain Jack Sparrow that really marks the spot. Depp, arguing that pirates were the rock stars of their day, models his entire performance on Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones: it’s there in every slurred vowel and every drug-fried wiggle of the head. There’s an endearing dignity to Sparrow’s hunger for fame. “You are, without doubt, the worst pirate I’ve heard of,” says one British officer. “Yes,” replies Jack, “but you have heard of me.” Gloriously over-the-top, this performance is pitched only as high as the film’s fun factor itself. In terms of physical precision and verbal delivery, it’s a masterclass in comedy acting.” — Alan Morrison, Empire

Score: 79%

What the Public Say
“manages the weird assignment of capturing the sensibility of a theme park boat ride inside a Spielbergian adventure romp. This is all the things popcorn movies should be: fun, energetic, simple enough to quickly grasp but full enough to not seem stupid, anchored by strong personalities among all the side characters (Geoffrey Rush’s florid villain is a great bit of acting in its own right, unfairly overshadowed by Depp), and a cohesive world with a sense of history and depth.” — Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy

Verdict

It seemed like such a terrible idea when it was first announced: films based on Disney theme park rides? What the hell were they thinking?! The other movies produced by this initiative turned out to be as terrible as everyone expected, but somehow Pirates of the Caribbean — which also had to contend with the fact that cinematic pirates were deeply unpopular after the studio-killing disaster of CutThroat Island eight years before — wasn’t. Not just “not bad”, either, but an exciting, humorous, creepy, fun movie. That the sequels haven’t lived up to it is disappointing, but the first still stands as a near-perfect example of big-budget swashbuckling entertainment — it’s basically the dictionary definition of a summer blockbuster.

#71 goes to show… you never can tell.

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3 thoughts on “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

  1. Great write-up. Glad I’m not the only one who enjoyed this first one – which lived up to its name of “Prepare to be blown out of the water”. I only watched one of the sequels and thought it was nowhere as close to the first. Gave up on all the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

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