IMDb Top 250: #227 – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Pirates of the Caribbean
Pirates of the Caribbean

250 films, 250 reviews. This is a pretty crazy idea, but who doesn’t love a challenge? Here at Cultured Vultures we’ll be counting down the IMDb Top 250 with a review for each from one of our dedicated film writers. Everything from Goodfellas to Casablanca will be covered over the next year or so for you film lovers to enjoy. You can’t say we don’t spoil you, you lovely lot. – Ashley, Project Lead

There are four Pirates of the Caribbean movies with a fifth supposedly on the way. Captain Jack Sparrow has been a pop culture icon for what seems like a lifetime. It was only twelve short years ago that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (from here forth referred to simply as Black Pearl for ease and common decency) hit theatres in the summer of 2003, sharing a July release with movies like Terminator 3 and Bad Boys II. Somehow I remained the single living human to have not seen Black Pearl up until this article, so know that I am coming at it with fresh eyes and no twinge of nostalgia. I have to say, it has stood the test of time remarkably well.

We’re going to play a funny game and imagine you don’t know what this movie is about so I can do a plot summary. Black Pearl is remembered more for Jack Sparrow but is really the story of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). He’s a blacksmith who discovers he’s of pirate ancestry while teaming up with the aforementioned eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to rescue Will’s love, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from the titularly cursed pirates who follow Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush). The film begins in the past with Turner being found as a young boy (and some world building this and that), but doesn’t really take off until years later when Elizabeth, having difficulty breathing in a tight corset, falls from a ridiculous height into the bay underneath and is rescued by a drunk cosplayer named Jack Sparrow. To note, everything that follows within Black Pearl and the entire franchise can be attributed to that corset.

A couple things struck me early on. First, how much Black Pearl captured the vibe of the cherished live-action Disney movies from the late 70s and early 80s, something that never came through the trailers. Movies like Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Black Hole and even Pete’s Dragon had a special kind of danger, which leads me to the second observation: lots of death, wow. Sure, there’s plenty of undead to mince and stab under a ‘cartoon violence’ banner, but Black Pearl doesn’t waste much time before non-undead (let’s call them “living”) characters are killed by sword and cannon. This is by no means a complaint (I argue for kids movies needing actual stakes just as much as any movie), but I was surprised to see it in a big summer blockbuster Disney family flick.

Director Gore Verbinski’s action scenes are mostly pretty great (although strangely the sword fighting didn’t get enough visual love aside from the very early Jack vs Will confrontation) with some clever environmental uses and a lot of shots framed as if filmed for 3D (well before the modern resurgence, although Spy Kids 3-D also came out that July). Being a two and a half hour experience, the action and the frequency with which these set pieces show up was a blessing. The world of the Pirates of the Caribbean films either have a wonky physics engine or Disney coated the set with flubber because any character that decides to jump or bounce is treated to an absolute lack of resistance by gravity. Although this bugged me in Dead Man’s Chest (the only one I had seen prior), it was much less distracting in Black Pearl. Also, the visual effects were still impressive, especially the light/dark flesh/skeleton tricks, which I remember being a big sell at the time.

Speaking of the unexpected (transitioning off twelve year old CG somehow not looking like twelve year old garbage), Elizabeth ended up the strongest character in the cast, consistently leading the charge and growing as a person. Neither Captain Jack nor Johnny Depp had become a parody of the Keith Richards riff that is Sparrow yet, and he remained an interesting force of nature to watch even when the schtick did occasionally fall flat. Now that brings us to Mr. Will Turner – who unfortunately wasn’t very engaging. This might be due to his arc boiling down to okay fine I’m a pirate’ or just Orlando Bloom’s performance, but for Black Pearl being the story of Will Turner, he’s easily the most forgettable part of the movie. Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Johnny Depp… Disney sure stacked the deck with pretty, didn’t they? And hunky Geoffery Rush am I right? Swoon.

Random observation: Barbosa sure ate a lot of apples. I felt like Black Pearl was trying to tell me something, some Snow White parallel or that maybe this was a reference to the ride. Who knows?

Best scene: Jack and Elizabeth on Rum Rules Island. No Will Turners allowed on Rum Rules Island. Theme stuck in my head for twelve years without even having seen the damn movie: this one.

Some of the writing and humour being aimed a little too directly at kids and Will Turner’s unlovable presence aside, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (fine I’ll say the whole thing, I can’t resist the bookend symmetry) is a rowdy swashbuckling adventure worthy of the devotion it sparked and the warm place it produces in so many hearts.

Note: the IMDb Top 250 Cultured Vultures are using is based on the standings from the 16th of November. Inconsistencies may apply.

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