Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)


(director: Gore Verbinski; screenwriters: Ted Elliott/Terry Rossio/story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, based on Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean; cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski; editor: Craig Wood/Stephen Rivkin/Arthur Schmidt; music: Klaus Badelt; cast: Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), Jack Davenport (Norrington), Jonathan Pryce (Governor Swann), Kevin McNally (Gibbs); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Jerry Bruckheimer; Walt Disney Pictures; 2003)

“Depp’s odd performance should probably make this film live on as a cult classic and become recognized as a bad film that has a certain entertainment value that counters its tedium.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bloated swashbuckler comedy inspired by a Disney amusement park ride and produced by the ‘king of crap’ Jerry Bruckheimer and, to add to its questionable karma, it is released by the family value people of Disney. It’s a theme park amusement ride big budget summer blockbuster geared mainly for kids. But it ignores their needs by being too long to keep their full attention. It’s directed by Gore Verbinski (“The Ring“) who has achieved status as a safe Hollywood type of director, but who has never made a film that caught my interest. He seems to take some wild rides to nowhere, yet his films never seem like they’re going anyplace or do they leave you much to think about. This one left me yearning to see an old-fashioned Errol Flynn pirate film, instead. If you’re going to do camp, you should learn how to make it nice and freaky like an Andy Warhol could do instinctively. Verbinski’s camp was a bore.

The roguish 18th-century pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who looks more like a party-goer from the modern day Village’s Christopher Street, is made up with beads in his hair, eye-shadow, a beard spotted with tiny braids and enough gold in his teeth to stake a mining claim. Depp is the only film character whose performance I enjoyed and who drew my honest laughter. His quirky shtick and amusing way he inflected his words and made those nervous gestures of waving his hands at imagined dangers and his preening strut, kept me tuned into his comedy act. He also ended up as the only characterization that made sense, even though he was cast in the film’s most bizarre role. The other characterizations were either over the top cheesy like Geoffrey Rush’s or played within the confines of their role in a dull manner like the hero Orlando Bloom or played mostly for their physical agility like heroine Keira Knightley. None of the cast, aside from Depp, ever conveyed a sense that they were real people or that they helped the tongue-in-cheek aims of the story to work better.

Sparrow drops anchor in Port Royal after his island escape and plans to commandeer a British vessel to go after his nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). He also wants to gather a crew to help reclaim his ship — the Black Pearl. It seems the ruthless Barbossa stole the captaincy by leading a mutiny on Sparrow, and marooned the swishy pirate on a remote and barren island. But first Sparrow must rescue a drowning Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), who fell in the sea because her corset was too tight. Her prim father, Governor Swann (Pryce), gave her this new dress from London to wear for the uptight Commodore Norrington, who is aiming to propose to the unreceptive young beauty. But she’s in love with the upright blacksmith named Will Turner (Bloom), whom she romanticizes as a pirate. While sailing 8 years ago with her father on Norrington’s ship, they rescued the stranded youngster from the sea. While Will was unconscious on deck, the same aged Elizabeth stole the gold medallion he wore around his neck. She stole it because she was afraid the Brits would hang him as a pirate, as the regal young lady has fallen in love at first sight with a guy from the opposite side of the tracks and now suffers from unrequited love.

The wily Captain Barbossa has come to Port Royal to reclaim that medallion because he and his crew have been cursed for their evil deed of stealing the Aztec gold and betraying their pirate captain. They are now ghosts and need to retrieve the medallion and spill the blood of the pirate Will Turner over the treasure chest of Aztec gold in order to undo the curse. It turns out that the timid Will really does have pirate’s blood in him, as it was his pirate father who cursed the mutineers before they killed him.

Barbossa attacks the town of Port Royal and kidnaps the medallion wearing Elizabeth, when she tells him her name is Turner. The long middle-part of the film is smothered with a repetitive plot that makes things far too convoluted with multiple climaxes, as there are a number of plot points that dull down the action scenes and the comedy gets as woozy as Depp’s character. A myriad cast of pirates try to crack one-liners or enact tired skits to show their zaniness, though watching them turn to skeletons (courtesy of CGI-enhanced special effects) whenever the moon was out and wine pour through their skeleton bones was a good way to kill time before the expected sword play took place. It all leads to a typical Hollywood pirate showdown with Barbossa. To Elizabeth’s rescue comes the duty-bound Norrington and her doting father on one ship and in another the Sparrow and Will team are speeding toward Barbossa in a stolen Brit vessel. Will helped Sparrow escape from the brig only because he’s interested in rescuing his love and the pirate knows where she’s been taken. Will turns from timid to heroic when he realizes that he has pirate blood. The dishonest Sparrow stays in character by having ulterior motives in this rescue mission.

Many a pirate cliché from movie lore is attempted and any lame gag that the screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (“Aladdin” and “Shrek”) could possibly think of is loudly thrown into the mix that features: a talking parrot, a mute whose tongue was cut out, a peg leg pirate, a fake eye popping out of a socket, a monkey on the shoulder of a pirate, and a constant clanging sound of jewelry coming from the overdressed pirates. By curbing the violence in the action and going mostly for the goofiness, the film sails in its own murky waters. The only thing that kept it afloat was Depp’s gigantic screen presence. Without him, “Pirates” would have walked the plank without anyone caring. Depp’s odd performance should probably make this film live on as a cult classic and become recognized as a bad film that has a certain entertainment value that counters its tedium.