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Pirates of the Caribbean may now be a billion-dollar franchise, but the first film was a strange proposition when it was released 15 years ago. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, to give it its full title, was inspired by a ride at a Disneyland theme park. It also sought to resurrect the pirate film, a genre that had been unfashionable for a long time.
Directed by Gore Verbinski (The Ring), the first Pirates film was a mash up of comedy, action, horror and costume drama. This isn’t a film that takes itself too seriously. Instead, it’s about adventure on the high seas.
The screenplay written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek and Treasure Planet) leans into absurdity at every chance. Fight sequences become opportunities for physical comedy. The eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is introduced as a rogue who arrives at Port Royal on a sinking ship. He is looking for his old ship, the Black Pearl, which he lost during a mutiny. Sparrow agrees to help Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) rescue Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), the governor’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by pirates following an attack on the port.
This rescue attempt is complicated by the undead crew of the Black Pearl. It’s almost a full hour into the film’s runtime before the monstrous nature of the pirate crew is revealed. Elizabeth discovers she is surrounded by rotting skeletons on a cursed ship. It’s a creepy and horrifying sight that ends with Elizabeth cowering in the captain’s cabin. The adventure is also a ghost story with a ship damned to sail the seas until the Aztec gold’s curse is lifted.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a surprise commercial and critical success in 2003. It made over 650 million dollars worldwide according to data from BoxOfficeMojo.com. The film also received five Oscar nominations including a Best Lead Actor nomination for Johnny Depp. While the film is a self-contained story, its success made a sequel inevitable. Disney greenlit two and set release dates before scripts had even been finalised. Dead Man’s Chest was released in 2006 with World’s End following in 2007. For me, the sequels are entertaining but overstuffed with characters and confusing subplots. The Pirates trilogy was now complete. Or so it might have seemed.
The success of Dead Man’s Chest and World’s End had made the Pirates franchise into a billion-dollar property. More films were to follow with On Stranger Tides in 2011 and Dead Men Tell No Tales in 2017. The more recent Pirates films didn’t achieve the same degree of box office sales as the earlier films in the US but they did well internationally. Dead Men Tell No Tales took around 172 million dollars during its US release which was less than its 230 million plus price tag. Its performance may have been a disappointment but that doesn’t rule out further Pirates films.
It also doesn’t take away for the first Pirates film which remains an enjoyable action adventure. And the scene-stealing performance at the centre of this film is Johnny Depp as the kohl-eyed eccentric Jack Sparrow. This pirate has become one of Depp’s most recognisable roles. However, it’s hard to ignore thoughts about Depp’s alleged problematic behaviour when watching the first Pirates film now. I like the first Pirates film and I think it has held up well over the last 15 years. But, my enjoyment of the film was interrupted by wondering if art and the artist can or should be separated. And I don’t know how to answer this question in any meaningful way.
Still, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an entertaining film which brought pirates back onto the big screen. Its success has kept them there for the past 15 years. Not bad for a film based on a theme park ride.