Pirates were once the most-feared people on the high-seas, but at the turn of the century, they were considered to be juvenile fodder, and even passé. To market and release an adventure film, with pirates, to a wide audience, would have been a massive gamble – for a blockbuster like Pirates of the Caribbean to be a hit, it would need to be something special. And it was.
On a Caribbean island, at the height of Britain’s colonial rule, lives Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the feisty daughter of Governor Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce). Elizabeth has held a fascination with pirates ever since she was a young girl, when her father’s ship fought with the infamous pirate vessel known as the Black Pearl. On that day, Elizabeth stole an heirloom made of gold from one of the pirates – a boy named Will Turner – which she now wears as a pendant.
One day, after collapsing off a cliff and into the waters below, Elizabeth is saved by a characterful and eccentric pirate named Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) who recognises the pendant she wears, and seeks to take it from her. Unbeknownst to either party, the act of Elizabeth hitting the seafloor has alerted Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and the crew of the Black Pearl to the location of the heirloom. That evening, Barbossa’s crew attacks the island and kidnaps Elizabeth – incorrectly believing her to be the offspring of legendary pirate Bootstrap Bill.
Having been imprisoned by the Governor’s forces – he is a pirate, after all – there’s little Jack can do but watch the Black Pearl sail out of the harbour from his jail cell. Whilst in jail, he meets a now-adult Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) who agrees to free Jack on the condition that he rescues Elizabeth. Jack obliges, and so the two head to port to find a crew and a ship sturdy enough to traverse the treacherous Caribbean waters.
On paper, The Curse of the Black Pearl looked destined to become a box-office bomb. As well as being about pirates, the movie took its inspiration from a theme park ride at Disneyland, was the first PG-13 (or M-rated, if you’re in Australia) film to be released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner, and had cast a group of actors better known for their dramatic roles. And yet, despite all the signs pointing towards financial failure, audiences lapped it up.
Chief to the picture’s success is its ability to entertain on multiple levels. The old-school action sequences, mostly involving swords, were immaculately choreographed to be as exciting as possible, and different to any other blockbuster released at the time. This action is perfectly captured by the crystal-clear cinematography, all while being aided by a lively soundtrack – composed by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer, it’s among the most memorable film scores of recent years.
Another highlight is Johnny Depp’s turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, an enigmatic protagonist if ever there was one – clumsy yet cunning, camp but never cringeworthy. So loved was his performance that it earned Depp his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor which, given that The Curse of the Black Pearl is a blockbuster, is a considerable feat. Geoffrey Rush also camps it up, clearly enjoying himself in the role of Captain Barbossa.
Less convincing are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, who lack the charisma of Depp, Rush and even Jonathan Pryce. To say they were cast because of their attractive appearances would be unreasonable, but there’s little evidence to suggest otherwise. Additionally, while many of the practical effects are exemplary, the computer-generated effects are looking quite dated, a common fault of many blockbusters released during this period. Thankfully, scenes that use CGI are an infrequent occurrence.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl has all the hallmarks of a great adventure film – a loveable hero, a solid antagonist, great action and a fabulous soundtrack. More than anything though, the movie is fun, an attribute which all blockbusters should aspire to achieve.