At the heart of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a pair of great, odd-ball performances from Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush. The scene-chewing actors, who feature as the titular ne’er-do-wells, steal the picture right out from under its Disneyworld ambitions. Loaded stem to stern with sword fights, whizzing cannon balls, and skeletons marching into battle, Pirates of the Caribbean was probably meant to be merely another effects-driven adventure film, in keeping with the summer season and the movie’s origins as a popular Walt Disney theme park attraction. But Depp and Rush steer the film on a much wackier trajectory.
The story, as you can probably guess, if you’ve ever seen a pirate movie, involves an ancient nautical curse, a treasure chest stocked with gold doubloons, a beautiful, kidnapped maiden, and an orphaned boy with pirate blood coarsing through his veins. Orlando Bloom plays the part of the orphan. I have a feeling that Bloom was originally meant to be the center of the piece (the genre would almost require it) but he is completely upstaged by Captain Jack Sparrow, the rum-soaked rascal assayed by Depp. Depp brings so many bizarro flourishes to the part of the devious Captain that he transforms the romantic action into farce. With a walk that makes ballet of a permanently drunken swagger, a wispy British accent, and florid hand-gestures that suggest Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet on Quaaludes, Jack Sparrow feels like a totally original comic creation. He is well-met by his nemesis, Captain Barbosa, played by Rush, in an equally hammy performance. The actors bring the movie great vitality and humor. It becomes rather easy to forgive the movie’s other, less appealing indulgences: it is overlong by at least a half-hour, the orphan character is dreadfully underwritten, and there is far too much digitally-enhanced swashbuckling.
The genre of the pirate film has very few contemporary landmarks–mostly disasters like Cutthroat Island and Roman Polanski’s Pirates. To find a real pirate classic, you might have to go all the way back to the earliest days of narrative cinema, the age of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.. In more recent times, feats of derring-do, hidden treasures, and dialogue woven from blarney like "shiver me timbers" have usually signified the kind of colossally expensive whimsy that brings big studios crashing to their knees. Pirates of the Caribbean, already a late-summer smash, looks set to change this–or at least spawn a healthy franchise. So long as the performers keep command of the ship, I look forward to the next adventure of Captain Jack Sparrow.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current film, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.