Monday, April 8, 2024


by Patrick Bromley
I have learned to embrace being a Disney bro.

Let me back up. In the tradition of a certain now-disgraced film “critic” who will not be named, I have to provide some autobiographical background information before I start talking about Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. I apologize in advance for both the digression and for conjuring up the memory of Big Red for any readers.

Erika, the kids, and I just got back from a trip to DisneyWorld, where our son Charlie performed in a parade with his school's marching band. We have been going with some degree of regularity since 2014, when JB and Jan generously took our family to celebrate our son’s fifth birthday. A few years later when our daughter turned 5, we went again. Then we continued to find excuses to return to Disney with JB and Jan every other year or so over the last decade. I didn’t grow up going to Disneyworld. In fact, I never set foot inside the Magic Kingdom until Erika and I took a trip there for our honeymoon. While I never considered myself a Disney guy or a theme park guy or a happy, positive person, I fell in love with it. I continue to love it every time we go to the point that I have to accept that I am now a Disney person. I'm as surprised as you are. There are simply too many of my favorite memories associated with it for me to think of it as anything but the Happiest Place on Earth.
Besides having a stupid and unwieldy title, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is one of the best blockbusters of the 2000s. Maybe the best blockbuster of the 2000s. It is a testament to what a big-budget summer movie can and should be: smart writing, great characters, thrilling action, a healthy sense of humor, cool special effects, a rousing score -- it's why we go to the movies during those months. Hell, it's why we go to the movies year-round, but of a time when a film of this budget and slickness was relegated to the Stuff of Summer. It would go on to become one of the five biggest hits of 2003, spawning four massive sequels and becoming the rare summer movie that's vaulted to "instant classic" status.

Back in 2002 when the marketing materials were first released, no one knew that would be the case. A movie based on a theme park ride? Really? Starring Johnny Depp, an actor who mostly made small, eccentric movies that rarely achieved commercial success? And now he's appearing in a Disney movie based on a ride and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer? And a PIRATE movie, no less -- a genre that hadn't been viable in over 50 years. The last real attempt at a Hollywood pirate movie was 1995's Cutthroat Island, the movie that ultimately destroyed Carolco and is still considered one of the biggest flops in history. Nothing about it should have worked.

The cynicism of it all was more than I could tolerate at the time. A theme park ride movie with the gumption to add its own subtitle, pre-emptively suggesting there would be sequels from which this installment would have to be distinguished? Go fuck yourself. But I'm a highly evolved man, and we highly evolved men can willingly admit when we're wrong. Thirty minutes into seeing Curse of the Black Pearl for the first time, I knew I was wrong about it. The movie doesn't just resist my cynicism -- it ties it to a post and tortures it.
There's something very old-fashioned about the first Pirates movie, and it has very little to do with it being a pirate movie. The movie's success is the result of incredibly talented craftspeople working at the top of their respective games, from producer Bruckheimer to the DP (Dariusz Wolski) to the composer (Klaus Badelt wrote a score that's instantly iconic) to the actors to the production designers to the costumers to the effects artists (this movie has some of my favorite use of CG effects of the last 20 years) to screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, previously known mostly for their work on animated films but whose The Mask of Zorro is probably the movie that got them this gig because it's great in many of the same ways. The skill and talent at every level of production used to be the standard of Hollywood's Golden Age but tends to seldom be the case in the modern era (era) of blockbuster filming when movies are rushed to screens with unfinished effects and nonexistent scripts to make a release date. And while Curse of the Black Pearl certainly boasts a hefty price tag and uses cutting-edge technology to bring its ghost pirates to the screen, its pleasures are primarily analog: the stunts, the performances, the practical sets. It all feels like the last gasp of a certain type of filmmaking. I mean that in a good way.

One of the big reasons why Curse of the Black Pearl -- and the entire original Verbinski trilogy -- works and a sequel like On Stranger Tides does not is because it understands that Jack Sparrow is not the main character. He is the best character. He is the character everyone remembers and is almost singlehandedly responsible for the film's massive success, but he is not the main character. Will Turner is not the main character, either, a fact that only really becomes clear as the sequels unfold (a case could be well made that he is the main character of Black Pearl). Jack is the colorful support. He's the Han Solo, the guy we're not entirely certain we can trust but who we hope is on our side. (I have long argued that the Pirates trilogy has a lot in common with the original Star Wars trilogy; the Han Solo/Jack Sparrow comparison is just one of many.) Like with Robert Downey Jr. in the original Iron Man, Pirates took a quirky actor with two decades' worth of interesting work in smaller movies and instantly turned him into a global superstar. Disregard the fact that the movie essentially ruined Depp as an actor and that Depp responded in kind by being such a garbage person that he ruined his movies: Depp's Oscar-nominated turn (!!) is the probably the biggest contributor to the movie's lasting cultural legacy, so much so that he was added to the Disneyworld ride after the fact. But he's not the hero. 
No, the hero of the movie is Keira Knightley's Elizabeth, who is both our entry point into the pirate world and the character who changes the most over the course of the original trilogy. At first glance she's on hand as the romantic lead opposite Orlando Bloom's mildly-dull-but-functional Will Turner, rallying against wearing corsets and willing to sacrifice her own happiness to save someone she loves. Yes, she is pretty much the movie's lone female character (the next closest is Zoe Saldana in a weird two-scene cameo), forced to navigate a Man's World and assert her independence. But Elizabeth Swann is more than just a "strong female" box to be checked, born to a Governor and a comfortable aristocratic life but longing for a life of freedom. Longing to be a pirate. Her gradual transformation to becoming not just a pirate but the king of the pirates, while far-fetched to some (in a series with Krakens and ghosts and squid people), is kind of the perfect character arc. You think in the first film that she's Princess Leia; you realize by the end of the third that she's Luke Skywalker. 
It's fitting that Verbinski, a former punk musician-turned-filmmaker with a thick streak of rebellion in him, sides with the pirates in his movies. Not only does he bring a sense of total confidence, style, and visual imagination to the proceedings, but he's not afraid to let the series get weirder and weirder as it goes on -- like Terry Gilliam with better commercial chops. That A Cure for Wellness appears to have landed him in director jail after making Disney three of the most successful films of the 2000s is a real shame because we've been denied not just more of his potential Blank Check movies, but his "one for them" studio films as well. The Pirates movies are some of the most subversive "one for them" movies Hollywood has ever released, especially as the East India Trading Company is slowly revealed to be the series' true villain; it's not hard to read them as a stand-in for Disney, forcing the pirate Verbinski to do their corporate bidding or face their wrath. By the time Keira Knightley chains Jack Sparrow to the ship and sacrifices him to the Kraken at the climax of Dead Man's Chest, his calling her "Pirate" is the highest compliment the movie can give her. 

Visiting DisneyWorld again last week, I've realized that The Pirates of the Caribbean ride has become one of my two or three favorite rides in the entire park. We rode it twice on our recent trip because it's also a favorite of Erika's and is becoming a favorite of our daughter's, too. I'd suggest a "Chicken/Egg" debate as to why I love it, but seeing as I never rode the ride until a year after seeing Curse of the Black Pearl I know that a big reason it's one of my favorites is because I love these movies so much. Yes, the ride rules and there are plenty of reasons to love it independently of the movies it inspired, but I know that a big part of my affection comes from the three Gore Verbinski movies, Black Pearl most of all. While I love original trilogy as a whole, the I'd go so far as to count the first one among my favorite movies of all time.
Curse of the Black Pearl was but one of Disney's attempts to turn their theme parks into movie IP in the early 2000s, with the company greenlighting two more movies based on rides around the same time: The Country Bears in 2002 and The Haunted Mansion in 2003. Neither understood what made Pirates so special and failed at the box office. Or maybe it's just that lightning really can't strike twice. To prove the point, Disney turned Jungle Cruise into a bad movie in 2021 and then made The Haunted Mansion yet again in 2023. Even the two non-Verbinski Pirates sequels aren't really able to capture what makes the original three so special, though 2017's Dead Men Tell No Tales comes a lot closer because it's not directed by Rob Marshall. Every subsequent failure to turn a ride into a satisfying movie just further demonstrates what a miracle movie Curse of the Black Pearl really is.

I realize I've gotten this far without talking about all the things I love about Pirates, including the wonderful character of Captain Hector Barbossa, played brilliantly by a hammy Geoffrey Rush. (If the saying is true and a movie is only as good as its villain, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is fucking great.) He's as good a villain as Jack Sparrow is a hero -- or anti-hero, depending on the scene -- and the choice to bring him back later in the franchise is one of the smartest decision the filmmakers could have made. I also haven't talked about the sword fights, which are consistently thrilling and well-choreographed even when they seem to be in the movie for their own sake, like the early duel between Captain Jack and Will Turner that seems motivated by the need for an obligatory action beat. I could go on and on about all the things I love about Curse of the Black Pearl and about Pirates of the Caribbean in general. If nothing else, it makes me think of being at DisneyWorld with my family, a place I love to be and the people I love to be with.

What can I say? I'm a Disney bro and I love Pirates.


  1. Great article, Patrick! I too am pro-POTC. The ending of the third movie initially left a bad taste in my mouth. But then I enjoyed the fifth movie which, despite its flaws, tied things together much more satisfactorily. Now all five movies are, to me, like they're one of those super-long fantasy novels.

    Is Disney World really still good? I'm concerned about how much of it has been demolished/rebuilt in the last 10-15 years.

    And Cutthroat Island isn't nearly as bad as everyone says.

    1. Thanks Mac! I still love DisneyWorld even though a lot has changed. It probably helps that I've only been going for about 10 years and don't have many memories of what it used to be like.

      Cutthroat Island is good! I feel like maybe the tide of opinion is turning on that one. Thanks for reading!

    2. Cutthroat Island is fantastic, but the comments under the post when they announced the 4k were not kind to the movie. Some of them were, but most were just dismissing the movie. It felt like most of them were just going by the reputation of the movie and had not actually seen it in a while

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    1. To me, the big problem with The Curse of the Black Pearl is the plot lacks a compelling dramatic conflict. The undead pirates want to become human again, which would make them mortal, and there's no reason anyone, from the Brits to Jack to Will to Elizabeth, should be opposed to that. The only reason the protagonists are opposed to the villains is because they want to sacrifice Elizabeth, which would be bad, yes, but it's not personal to the pirates. Compare this to the Elliott and Rossio-written The Mask of Zorro, where everything is personal to both the heroes and villains. Without a compelling dramatic conlict, then, the movie just piles up loads upon loads of plot points and twists, and the result, IMO, is pretty tiresome even despite the actors' charisma. (Dead Man's Chest fixes this, however, by giving the three protagonists and Davy Jones compelling and personal conflicts, along with a giant leap up in terms of cinematography, production design, and action choreography, such that I consider DMC one of the all-time great sequels in terms of improvement upon the original... and then At World's End managed to lose the plot again entirely.)

      I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade for liking this first movie, but to me, the two great pirate movies of the past thirty years are DMC and Muppet Treasure Island.

    Also I have always been a Disney Girl and your comparisons of the Pirates films to the Star Wars films just makes me want to go back even more! I challenge you to a POTC ---> ROTR "double feature".

  4. Yes! I agree 1000% with every word in this wonderfully written piece. I love the hell out of Verbinski's three pirate movies, and agree that Curse of the Black Pearl is the best blockbuster of the 2000s.

    I first saw it at a drive thru, which ended up being a terrible experience. I couldn't hear the movie, and could barely see the screen as the sun was still setting. It wasn't until the movie came out on DVD that I finally "got" it and fell in love instantly. You nailed it on the head when you mentioned how old school it is. A family friend of mine actually worked on film crews at the time, and talked about seeing the actual huge pirate ships in person.

    My wife is a huge fan of the first 3 movies as well, for all the reasons you mentioned but also in no small part because of Keira Knightley and Elizabeth as a character. Her arc is fantastic and it always bummed me out that she didn't just join up with Will and crew in At World's End. Oh well.

    I'm curious if you're a big fan of Rango as well. I wish Verbinski would do more animation. It shares a lot of the same great qualities as his Pirate films. I even have a tattoo of Rango because I love that one so much.

    Anyway, great piece and thanks for writing it.

    1. Thank you James! I've never actually seen RANGO despite owning it for years. I must remedy that post-haste, especially while I'm on on something of a Verbinski kick. Thank you for reading and commenting!