I once read a magazine article in which producer Jerry Bruckheimer said that when it comes to story ideas, movie writers look everywhere. This includes newspapers for real life events, books, investigative articles in magazines, TV show and yes, even video games. However, when he supported a project based on a Disneyland ride, people must have been a little skeptical. Yet low and behold, the first entry in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise surprised everyone by becoming of the biggest hits of the summer of 2003. It resurrected a dead genre, and introduced the world to Johnny Depp’s Academy Award nominated performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, the Keith Richards-like scoundrel of the seas with a taste for rum.
This was one of the many big movies I saw in the summer of 2003 after moving back to Canada, following an eight-year stay in South America. Since all movies are released on different dates in South America, this was the first I got to see all big studio movies released one after the other, with all the TV previews saying how good they are. That can be misleading sometimes, but after seeing “POTC” with my brother, I was pleasantly surprised to see they were right. This is the sort of movie that ten-year-olds watch and then go replay the scenes with make-believe swords. In my case, the kind of movie you want to get for Christmas so you can see how they built all those ships (and all the fun they had making the movie).
The key to the movie’s success is keeping it mostly simple and very fun. I once took a creative writing class where we watched “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” as a template for classic storytelling. You have Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the damsel that needs to be rescued from the movie’s villain Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), a man so evil apparently the gates of hell would not let him inside. His ship, the Black Pearl, is manned by a crew of miscreants cursed after stealing Aztec gold from an island called, of course, Isla de Muerta.
Then we have our heroes. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), is a lower class blacksmith in love with Elizabeth, even though she is the daughter of the governor (Jonathan Pryce) and is out of his league. Yet as a blacksmith he has access to many swords and practices with them three hours a day. “You need to find yourself a girl mate,” says Captain Jack Sparrow, the story’s trickster. “Trickster” is the right word, since Sparrow is neither hero nor villain. As a pirate he cheats, lies, steals, drinks and sleeps with prostitutes. Yet he will help Will rescue the woman he loves, since it will help him find the Black Pearl, his ship until it was stolen from him during a mutiny led by Barbossa.
Story-wise, that is all you need. Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio also filled the film with entertaining supporting characters such as pirates Ragetti and Pintel (Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg) one of whom spends most of the movie chasing his wooden eyeball. Then there is Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) a member of the royal navy and later a pirate himself who utters sentences like “It’s bad luck to have a woman on board. Even a miniature one.” Of course, there is also a monkey and a parrot. The only thing missing was mermaids, but that came three movies later.
At 135 minutes, it makes for a bit of a long ride, but you enjoy every minute of it. Director Gore Verbinsky, who started out by making that Budweiser commercial with the croaking frogs, keeps the pace brisk and shoots everything on location. That’s the great thing about movies: they can take you to places you have never been. When the action slows down, you notice the Caribbean is a very lovely place to be a pirate. And when the action picks up again, you have that terrific score by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt as the characters fight with swords, ships fire their canons and Jack Sparrow swings into the air to escape the British Navy. Drink up me mateys!