In preparation for today’s release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I think it’s necessary for us to look back at Disney’s original installment of this franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl. The first film in this series was the best summer blockbuster of its year and was met with high critical acclaim and robust box-office earnings. Even Roger Ebert, the infamously harsh “king-of-critics,” gave this film 3 stars out of 4. The Curse of the Black Pearl is a true-to-heart adventure flick, so it’s success should not go ignored since its release date was during what I like to refer to as “the 2nd Golden Age of Adventure Flicks,” the first being crafted and mastered by the partnership between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the early 1980’s.
I can’t for the life of me find a reason as to why this trend started, but I think I can accurately point to where. In 1999, Stephen Sommers (not to be confused with the fearless leader of the X-Men, Scott) wrote and directed his 2nd major project, The Mummy, which starred the likes of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz; if that isn’t early 2000’s enough for ya, then I don’t know what is. There is nothing particularly special about this movie. In fact, it’s a pretty shameless rip of Indiana Jones; if you replaced Fraser with Ford, nobody would bat an eye if it were called “Indiana Jones and The Mummy.” I think the important part about the timing of its release was that it worked as a counter to the more dark and gritty action films of its day, like The Matrix… at least my parents were much more willing to take me to see a movie where an undead demonic being sucks skin and organs from its live victims, as opposed to a kung-fu-kicking shoot-em-up. Anyway, the point is that I, along with a lot of other people, will always remember The Mummy as a movie that was way more fun to watch than it deserved to be.
This is something that seems to be true for a lot of movies that find themselves in what I would consider the “Adventure Genre.” Speaking of which, I think now is a good time to clearly define what I mean by this. In order to fit into the Adventure Genre, a film must do a few things:
The story must take its characters across a great distance to explore new things and/or recover ones lost long ago. This enables the story to naturally flow from one location to the next.
The setting must be unique. This can mean alot of different things, such as world’s that exist only in fantasy, historical or exotic settings, using fantastical elements, or even combinations of these. This ensures that the story will have a certain sense of “Epicness” to it.
Lastly, the story must end with a “return to normalcy.” This criterion separates adventure movies from run-of-the-mill action flicks, as it shows that the protagonists had lives that were very different from when the adventure started. Think about it this way; outside of his adventures, Indiana Jones is a quiet professor and historian, the hobbits that leave the Shire are very different from the hobbits that return to the Shire, and Will Turner leaves a blacksmith and returns a pirate. In most action flicks, by contrast, the protagonists find themselves on this “adventure” because of who they are; be that a law enforcement agent, a soldier, a Norse god, or a superhero.
The second and third films released during the 2nd Golden Age were The Fellowship of the Ring and The Philosopher’s Stone (AKA, The Sorcerer’s Stone). I won’t talk about these much here, but I will casually mention that one of these films is one of the greatest achievements in cinema in the past 20 years while the other is… not so much. Let’s move along, shall we? The important thing to note here is that The Curse of the Black Pearl went head-to-head with two money-making giant and only lost by $70 million… okay, that sounds bad, but that $70 million is only 18% of the total amount that The Return of the King made.
So, the stage is set, we’re about to reach the peak of the 2nd Golden Age of Adventure Flicks, and Disney is ready to release one of its biggest live-action films ever… that’s based on their famous theme park ride of the same name… oh boy, this oughta be good.
The plot is shaky at times, but is pretty straightforward. However, when considering its source material, you can’t help but be a little impressed by what the writers managed to put together. The being said, there are some pretty glaring elements that need to be pointed out. Firstly, while this film is more focused on character than action, there is still a lot of action, and you learn that most of it is pointless. During the course of the final sword fight, two characters even stop to ask each other why they are fighting if they can never actually kill their opponent. Since neither can come up with a good answer, they simply continue fighting. It’s these types of moments that make it seem like the film is deliberately wasting your time.
The biggest praise I have for the film is its emphasis on character. The two main protagonists, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, are very likeable albeit a little clichéd. Will is a poor blacksmith’s apprentice who actually does all the work and never receives credit for it. He’s always the underdog despite his prowess and courage. On top of that, he’s desperately in love with Elizabeth, who is, by societal standards, way out of his league. This makes him a protagonist that audiences want to see succeed. The same is true for Elizabeth. She’s the daughter of the rich Governor and is expected to be a “proper lady,” but she would like nothing more than to live a life of adventure. She’s also in love with Will, but the two are very bad at expressing their feelings for one another so that comes later.
This movie is also a great case study on how to effectively use minor characters. I don’t think any film has more memorable characters whose names I’m not even sure are ever mentioned. First, take a look at the two comedic relief duos. Comedic relief characters are often very gimmicky, as they rarely have anything to provide the story other than… well, comedic relief. In this movie, however, the comedic relief characters are essential to the plot. The two guards at Port Royal are the ones who prevent Jack from taking a ship of his choosing, and they play semi important roles during the film’s finale. The pirate duo is even more essential, as they are the ones who capture Elizabeth, the ones who bring her to Barbossa, and the ones that provide the distraction in the film’s finale. And yes, I think both duos are pretty funny. Secondly, characters like Mr. Gibbs are not necessarily essential, but they add to the story because they stand out as vibrant or unique.
And of course, the two show stealers are (Captain) Jack Sparrow and Barbossa. However, rather than talk about them here, I’ll simply reserve them for the next section.
The main reason that these two characters steal the show are because of the terrific performances from Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush. Rush’s performance is incredible as the dreadful pirate captain of the Black Pearl. The thing that stands out in particular about his performance is in the delivery of his dialogue, even down to how he says specific words. When I read something in a “pirate accent,” I read it in his voice. Rush epitomized the ideal pirate with his performance. Depp pretty much sealed his name into acting legend with this role, which was an entirely unique role for a blockbuster film at the time. Now, there have been countless attempts to copy his character and performance (even attempts made by himself). The demeanors and dialogues of both these characters are easily the best part of the movie for me.
The most mediocre part of the film are the visuals. The direction (done by Gore Verbinski) is entirely conventional, the action sequences are not put together very well, and the CGI is pretty low tier and cartoonish. However, the style never sways from conventional to downright bad, so the score won’t dip too low. I’ll also award bonus points for Verbinski’s use of shot – reverse shot to amplify the humor in the dialogue, as well as a few points for all around incredible costume design (done by Penny Rose).
One thing that separates great adventure films from the rest is an incredible musical score. If I asked you what you think the top five most memorable original scores from films were, I’d be willing to bet that at least 4 of them come from adventure movies (otherwise, you’d be wrong, and I’d be disappointed in you). While the score (by Klaus Badelt with help from rising star, Hans Zimmer) is not up there with the best adventure films, there’s no doubt that it leaves an impression on the viewer. Like all great adventure films, the film’s score is inseparable from the story because it does so much to create that unique world. Think about how well you know the music from Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings (aka, the greatest achievement in film scoring of all time). These scores aren’t just pieces of music that accompany the visuals, they’re an integral part of world building. While the score for Pirates might not be up there with some of these all-time greats, it is nonetheless an essential part of the world that these films take place in.
X-Factor: 6/10, for pirating too much of The Princess Bride
It’s really incredible how much this film got away with stealing from Rob Reiner’s 1987 classic, The Princess Bride. If you’re not entirely sure what I’m talking about, I’d encourage you to re-watch the two films together. If Pirates wanted to be a straight-up comedy film, all it would have to do is superimpose the audio from The Princess Bride.
The Curse of the Black Pearl is a film that I’m sure everyone got some kind of enjoyment out of. Unfortunately, it also serves as a reminder for what happens when Disney gets ahold of a successful franchise. The franchise became a more and more grotesque, distorted version of itself with each installment. Jack, probably the most praised element of the original film, became a masturbatory gimmick that eventually culminated to a hallucination scene with an entire ship full of Jack’s in the series’ third film. The love story between Will and Elizabeth was in shambles by the second half of the second film. Rush was brought back in the third to try and recapture some of the magic the second one had disposed of. Eventually, everyone abandoned ship on the series with the exceptions of Depp and Rush, who were obligated to stick around by either contract or pride. Today, the series’ fifth installment is being loaded up onto the projectors in what I’m sure will be another shameless cash-grabbing attempt to either revamp the series or milk it until it’s truly dead. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that Disney will run a franchise into the ground and then dig a hole for it to run deeper if it means more money. I say that to warn you, dear reader, of having high hopes for what I’m guessing might be your two favorite franchises currently: Star Wars and the MCU. Not everything lasts forever.