Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' (2003)
Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.
It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time when Johnny Depp was an underdog. Casting him in a main role in a big-budget Disney movie was something of a risk, and in the first Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is more of a facilitator for the romance between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) than the primary focus of the story. Sparrow, of course, works best in small doses, and he's at his most appealing and entertaining in The Curse of the Black Pearl, able to utter a funny line and then step away for the plot to move forward. That plot is still convoluted and lumbering (although less so than it will become in later installments), and the movie isn't quite as lively as it ought to be. But it's still mostly fun to watch, certainly more so than any that came after it, and if it hadn't become a massive worldwide success, it could have been a fun little hidden Disney gem.
The Pirates brand has also become so closely associated with Depp that it's easy to forget that this movie was based on an iconic Disney ride, one which has now been retrofitted to feature elements from the movies (I bet there's a whole generation of Disneyland and Disney World visitors who have no idea that the ride came decades before the movies). So there's a sense of fun to spotting the references and seeing how the filmmakers came up with a story to fit the ride's aesthetic, mixing some historical aspects of piracy in the Caribbean with a supernatural story that allows for ghostly pirate skeletons. Again, the historical aspect is pretty much thrown out in the subsequent movies, but here there actually is a certain attention to period detail (even if it's cartoonish and exaggerated).
While Bloom and Knightley are lovely to look at, the love story between the wealthy governor's daughter and the humble blacksmith is pretty dull, and the obstacles to their being together get kind of tiresome. Luckily Jack Sparrow is there to poke fun at things, and Depp is quite amusing as the drunken, roguish (but good-hearted) pirate. Depp gets all the attention, but Geoffrey Rush is every bit as amusing playing the villainous Barbossa, and Rush really nails the pirate-speak, while Depp goes off on his Keith Richards impression. More than anyone else, Rush really feels like he's embodying the hokey but endearing spirit of the ride.
The movie, too, mostly embodies that spirit, although like every movie in the series, it goes on for too long (even if it's one of the shortest installments), with a plot full of too many reversals and double-crosses. Since there was no indication of the massive success to come and no need to set up a sequel, Black Pearl at least has a clean, definitive ending, leaving the characters in a position to be happy and sail off into the sunset (literally). Along the way there are some exciting sea battles, some funny lines and some entertaining side characters. Tighten it by 20 minutes and it would come close to being the modern adventure classic that fans make it out to be.