Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl ★★★★½

Think back on the past ten years of major budget Hollywood films and try to come up with a score more iconic or pervasive than this. Klaus Badelt's sweeping, swashbuckling anthem for all things pirate is Hollywood's last attempt at a John Williams theme, a parade of memorable pieces of horn-based music that pops up not to underline a scene, but to accentuate every moment of the movie. Such a bombastic score is indicative of the total control Gore Verbinski has over this outrageous, deft, hilarious, thrill ride that, for all its problems, still provides a rousing reminder of why we love adventure. Or maybe it's just the nostalgia.

Johnny Depp as himself playing a vast array of wacky characters caked in makeup has become something of a running joke in the past decade, but it's hard to brush away the sheer hilarity and precision he brings to this role. He owns Captain Jack Sparrow as much as any actor could, going all out in his eccentric performance while keeping the character grounded in reality. Every tic is expertly crafted for maximum effect, a finely woven quilt of eccentricities that comes together to form a compelling protagonist.

Any movie that can so quickly get the audience to sympathize with piracy and criminality is doing something right. In this twisted Disney fare, no one side is the villain, just as none is the hero. Will Turner's major conflict is whether or not to embrace the pirate in his blood (his father was one, after all), and it's done with surprising nuance, to the point that Turner's 180 into piracy is believable. The same cannot be said for Orlando Bloom's performance. His vapid presence never meshes with the superior talent surrounding him, and he often becomes overshadowed by the likes of Depp, Geoffrey Rush, and Keira Knightley. Nevertheless, his story is easy to grasp and loads of fun, as is his repertoire with many of his fellow cast members.

But you came here for action, and action is what you get. This is my favorite type of action, the kind I like to refer to as pulley and lever action, in which the environment dictates what unfolds onscreen. It's the same kind of thing Spielberg used in his early Indiana Jones features, the idea that blatant choreography must be constantly elevated by the location, props, and anything else our hero can grab. This becomes exploited to the point of disbelief in later Pirates films, but is thoroughly resolute and thrilling in this first entry, in which sandbags double for weapons, forks and knives for cannonballs, and the mast of a ship as a means of escape. These are expertly written action scenes, relying not only on excellent choreography and direction but also the ability to constantly elevate the stakes. It's bombastic and huge and thrilling, but also tongue-in-cheek enough to let you know everyone is in on the joke.

The Curse of the Black Pearl also does a fine job blending tones. This is by and large a comedy, taking little of itself seriously, which is fine when our story quickly evolves into a ghost tale aboard a ship of skeletal undead. There are no pretenses about what exactly this movie is, which is to say nothing more and nothing less than a grandiose, swashbuckling, joyous ride through dark waters. With the exception of a few pacing problems at the onset of act three, the tempo is swift and enrapturing, each scene providing new clues to the ultimate endgame, and surprisingly deft at keeping the audience on their toes. The story here is complicated for Disney fare, but not so much as to warrant it as convoluted (we'll get to that with the sequels). On the contrary, the constant twists and turns work to the film's benefit, creating something special beyond the memorable characters and set pieces.

I so want to give this five stars as I have in the past, but I must acknowledge Pirates of the Caribbean is not perfect. I don't know that it earns its optimistic ending and some relationships, and the aforementioned problems regarding Bloom and the pace still stand. However, I am so pleased with this re-watch. This is just as much fun as I remember it, often hilarious and always rollicking in its own sense of adventure and grandeur. Pirates of the Caribbean is a delight.