Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

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The popularity of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl goes without saying. The 2003 feature may be based on the Disney theme park attraction of the same name, but Gore Verbinski’s jam-packed blockbuster is full of enough padding to lift a Jolly Roger.

The screenplay is one of those by-committee deals and there’s a lot of focus-grouping going on. It’s the epitome of blockbuster filmmaking, with Klaus Badelt’s rousing score propelling through the swashbuckling and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography pinning all the poster-ready angles.

The complex plot opens in the late 17th century with the recovery of the young Will Turner (Dylan Smith) in a shipwreck. The kid has a medallion that young Elizabeth Swann (Lucinda Dryzek) holds onto. Years pass and grownup Will (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith, while Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is pledged to be married to Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport).

Somehow, Elizabeth “activates” the medallion and draws the Black Pearl vessel to seek it out. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) takes her prisoner. In the meantime, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) dawdles into Port Royal in search of a ship. He clashes with Will, who eventually teams with the pirate to help free Elizabeth from the ghostly clutches of the Black Pearl.

There are more nooks and crannies in the plot, but the basic framework is sufficient for many special effects showcases and seafaring battles. There are even some good swordfights, with a highlight finding Sparrow tangling with Turner ahead of their ensuing partnership.

And there are several double-crosses. It can be hard to pin down character loyalties and things do get a tad preposterous, but there’s something deliciously roguish about the turns. The pirates can’t be trusted and seem only out for coin or ships or rum.

But the plot only goes so far, as do the contrivances, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is bought and sold thanks to its characters. Depp is the clear highpoint and his portrayal of Jack Sparrow has become the stuff of legend. He exemplifies a vaunting nut with all the appurtenances, forging a pickled and dipped bucket of treasure and guyliner out of a rickety Keith Richards impression.

Rush is very nearly Depp’s equal. He plays Barbossa with the sort of heinous bluster seldom seen and his characterization is built to last. He does all the little things right and his performances winds up bolstered by some good-looking CGI. The wine-drinking gag is still killer.

Knightley and Bloom do their part, but their romance barely registers and there’s not a lot of heat. Some of the supporting characters are more interesting, like Zoe Saldana’s Anamaria. There’s a history worth exploring and it’s too bad she’s not given much time.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl works about as well as it should. It is a crowd-pleasing romp and it’s bolstered by a boatload of historical fantasy. It’s a little long in the tooth, but it plays to the blockbuster template, builds on the strength of its characters and blows through nearly two and a half hours without letting the wind out of its sails. That’s something, right?

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