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

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For those taking a global view of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, it's very easy to be cynical. This is, after all, cross-promotion at its most blatant. What could be more marketable that one of Disney's most popular theme park attractions? The name recognition is already in place - all that's necessary to complete the puzzle is a story that will fit the ride. But there are two reasons why jaded ranting isn't the best way to proceed with this review. In the first place, no one really cares. And, more importantly, this is actually an entertaining experience.

Pirates of the Caribbean is good, but not great. Swashbuckling adventures are few and far between these days, so it's a pleasant surprise to see one that is competently made. To add to the enjoyment, the movie never takes itself too seriously. If there wasn't so much action, it would be tempting to classify the production as a comedy. Alas, Pirates of the Caribbean runs for a good 30 minutes too long (the protracted battles with the undead, who cannot be killed, become repetitive), and the denouement is on the weak side. Taken as a whole, however, the movie represents solid fun. A word of caution to parents, however: the PG-13 rating is an indicator that certain elements of the movie are not for younger children. Proceed carefully with sensitive under-11 children.

Cap'n Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is a pirate who's infamous for his ineptitude. After rescuing a damsel, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), he finds himself being thanked by her father (Jonathan Pryce) and her would-be betrothed (Jack Davenport) while simultaneously being arrested for piracy. He escapes, but, after losing a duel with the heroic blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who pines for Elizabeth, he is sent back to jail. However, when the town comes under attack by the pirate ship Black Pearl, and its blackguard of a captain, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), kidnaps Elizabeth, Will springs Jack from prison so the pirate can help him retrieve his beloved. But Barbossa isn't interested in a ransom. He and his crew are cursed to walk the Earth as the living dead until a blood sacrifice can restore their humanity.

As was true with director Gore Verbinski's previous outing, The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean oozes atmosphere. The humor keeps it from becoming too creepy, but there are still a few chills to be had. I was in some ways reminded of Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness, where there were lots of skeletons marching around, some of which were acting like the Three Stooges. Verbinski gets huge assists from cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and composer Klaus Badelt, who is responsible for one of 2003's few memorable musical scores. And, of course, we get to hear a few refrains of the memorable Pirates of the Caribbean anthem: "Yo ho! Yo ho! A pirate's life for me!"

Pirates of the Caribbean belongs to Johnny Depp. Keira Knightley (now a familiar face in the wake of Bend It Like Beckham) and Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings' Legolas, sans ears and blond hair) make a cute couple, and Geoffrey Rush is typically over-the-top as the bad guy, but the star of every scene is Depp. With several gold teeth in his mouth and beads in his hair, Depp plays the part with an engaging goofiness that sets the movie's tone. In one scene, Sparrow becomes blind drunk, but his behavior isn't all that different from when he's sober - a clear indicator of where Depp elected to take the character. Sparrow is a rogue through-and-through, and, although he may have a heart of gold, it's definitely tarnished. Take away Depp, and you're left with a derivative and dull motion picture.

As is mandated by the first rule of summer movies - sustain the action - Pirates of the Caribbean is wall-to-wall battles, chases, and fights. The only pauses are those necessitated by the need to advance the plot through exposition. There's lots of swordplay, including a lengthy and memorable struggle between Sparrow and Will. It's probably the best example of cinematic swordfighting since The Mask of Zorro. (It doesn't come close to the clash between Wesley and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. In that movie, the actors did their own fencing. Here, it's clear from the obscuring camera angles that stunt performers were involved.) For those who are familiar with the amusement park attraction, most of the key scenes are included (although the hairy leg is missing), emphasizing the movie's tie-in nature. And, if you're dying to see another Disneyworld/Disneyland ride turned into a cinematic endeavor, there's hardly any wait at all - The Haunted Mansion is due out at Thanksgiving. Personally, I can't wait for Space Mountain.

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

Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce
Screenplay: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Music: Klaus Badelt
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2003-07-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1