#2 in my ranking of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
I remember when this movie came out in 2003. It was a bit of a cultural phenomenon just thrilling people left and right. I saw it in theaters at the time and thought it was a generally fun adventure movie with a strong visual sense brought by this guy with a weird name, Gore Verbinski. I never saw the rapturous experience that others of my generation seemed to get from it, and here I am, twenty years later, after occasionally watching it from time to time, wondering about the difference in opinion. Well, I still think it’s a perfectly fine adventure tale, and I think I understand why I’ve been kind of muted in response compared to many other people.
The film isn’t an ensemble picture, Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner is very much the main character and protagonist, but it’s so ungainly in focus that it ends up feeling like one. One of the film’s strengths, that it actually takes time with some of its characters to give them some level of depth, actually, I think, ends up working slightly against the film because there are so many different competing ideas at play all throughout that the film ends up being about several different things at once while never really giving any of the ideas the kind of attention it needs to develop in an interesting direction. It’s just a silly adventure movie, though, why should it matter? Well, it matters when the movie itself introduces these ideas, treats them seriously for several minutes, and then drops them completely.
I see three big ideas that movie is trying to address to some degree or another. The first is the idea of fables growing from real stories, like the dreaded tales of the Black Pearl or, most particularly, the stories of Jack Sparrow’s (Johnny Depp) past. The second is the idea of a ship being freedom. The third is the most interesting of the three, the idea of pirates, creatures of the physical, material, and sensual, being doomed to spend eternity without any sensation whatsoever. The first would be best for a simple adventure story, the second gets all kinds of mixed up with the idea of piracy being a moral good (which is how the film ends, making it super weird), and the third would be best for something a bit less swashbuckling. All three together, though, create a mishmash of ideas that just cause thematic confusion in a movie that really should just be about the swashbuckling.
Anyway, the movie itself is about the adventures of lovelorn Will Turner trying to get back the object of his affection Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) after she’s kidnapped by the ghost pirates of the Black Pearl led by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) while the British Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) is also in pursuit with Swann’s father, the governor (Jonathan Pryce). There’s an island that can’t be found except by those who already know where it is, cursed Aztek gold, piracy, ship battles, and a lot of sword fights with unkillable skeleton monsters.
I have a theory on how the majority of people enjoy films, and it’s pretty much exclusively about plot. Most people want a plot they can’t predict but still makes sense, first and foremost from their entertainments. Interesting characters are secondary while themes and style are simply not important to most. Well, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl delivers on that kind of entertainment. Boiled down to its essence, the plot isn’t that complicated about a boy trying to get back his girl, but the script by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott introduces so many double crosses, twists, and turns that audiences, especially on first viewings, are left guessing, feeling like the movie is really smart. There is intelligence to the intricate nature of the plotting, how everything gets set up and paid off, that is fairly satisfying, but I always find that a thin kind of entertainment. I’m not denying that it works, I’m just saying that it’s amusing but not that fun.
Where the fun really comes in is through performances. Johnny Depp in his Academy Award nominated role brings a levity to the film that is honestly sorely needed considering how often the film gets kind of ponderous especially in the beginning. Rush takes to his tortured role of Barbossa with incredible relish, savoring every exaggerated syllable as he speaks. Orlando Bloom is fine as the straight man in all this, providing us the grounding in the adventure, while Kiera Knightley is both pretty and a bit feisty as Elizabeth.
The action is also clear, energetic, and propulsive, rarely falling into repetition with a lot of variety in how things get done with good use of special effects on the ghosts. Visually, the movie is often quite just nice to look at, providing a certain painterly aspect to key shots like the pirates walking along the seafloor to overtake a ship.
There’s a lot to recommend in the film, and it’s a fun overall experience. However, it’s bumpy along the way. I’d be entertained by a supercut of the film that was just every time someone said the word “pirate”, showcasing the super-serious take on the word that oozes out of most people’s mouths (especially Davenport as Norrington), providing an oddly serious air to the internal world of the film that seems caught between realism and fantasy. Also, the conflicting ideas that never really get time to shine (and the really odd way the movie excuses piracy at the end as well) move the film in directions it’s uninterested in actually pursuing. Still, the buckles are swashed good and fun.
Originally published here.