Movie adaptations of things never designed for the silver screen—like toys, cereal and iPhone games—come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them range from uninspired to pretty terrible. What a surprise, then, when Disney rolled out a ride based on one of its most familiar theme park rides and greeted audiences not with a half-hearted force multiplier of something people already loved, but a genuinely inspired adventure epic that breathed new life into the pirate genre and gave an entire generation of fans fresh appreciation for rascals, scoundrels, villains and knaves…devils and black sheep and really bad eggs. The movie? The now-classic Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.
The story takes place during the Golden Age of Piracy. Governor Weatherby Swann oversees the jewel of the British Caribbean, the bustling Port Royale, Jamaica. His biggest trouble is convincing his lovely daughter Elizabeth that she shouldn’t be so smitten with local blacksmith’s apprentice Will Turner, and should instead accept a marriage proposal from the dashing Commodore James Norrington. But all that changes when the notorious pirate Captain Jack Sparrow blows into town looking for a ship to steal, a crew to raise, rum to drink and booty to plunder, and not necessarily in that order. And just when Sparrow is finished raising a ruckus in town, the real trouble arrives: a ghostly pirate frigate known as the Black Pearl, whose invincible marauders invade the town, capture Elizabeth and head out to open water. Will wants to rescue the love of his life. Sparrow wants to get out of jail and maybe settle an old score or two with the nefarious Captain Barbossa who captains the Black Pearl. And Norrington can’t get over why anybody would follow the lead of the worst pirate he’s ever heard of. It all turns into rollicking adventure on the high seas over a chest of stolen gold, a sinister Aztec curse, and more cannonballs than you can swing a cutlass at.
Storywise, Pirates of the Caribbean is a solid framework that takes an otherwise traditional pirate adventure and infuses it with a supernatural subplot. This puts the movie in a perfect zone to take what it likes from the history from whence pirates came, with as much liberty as needed to dip into the arcane and the imaginary. The result is a story that becomes a finely tuned delivery mechanism for the kind of movie that you’re supposed to enjoy in the moment and then promptly forget.
Here’s the thing, though. This movie is expertly delivered. The setting is fun and compelling. The costumes are to die for, the action is thrilling and the jokes are funny. The story is serious when it needs to be, goofy when it wants to be and scary when it has to be. If there is any major weakness here, it’s that the characters are all reliable archetypes that we have seen elsewhere more than once. But these characters are perfectly inhabited by actors who give their roles twice as much energy as was called for. And because of that, Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa and even minor swabs like Mr. Gibbs, Anamaria, Pintel and Ragetti all manage to steal scenes in a narrative that has few to spare between its numerous and extravagant set pieces. But together, they all have an undeniable charisma that makes this movie ten times better than it should.
And that is without factoring in the magnificent creature that is Captain Jack Sparrow, a swaying, slurring rock star of pirate who is a legend in his own mind and a thorn in the side of those who care more about order than freedom. Sparrow is everything we want to see in a pirate: disdainful of anything approaching legitimate authority, wily enough to avoid capture (mostly), skilled enough to turn aside a blade, courageous enough to take his fight to the enemy, and wall-eyed enough to not take especially seriously. To watch Sparrow bobble around the screen is one of the most gratuitous joys in modern cinema, and even though this story isn’t really about him, he has a way of making it about him. And normally, a tale suffers when its side rogue commandeers things so totally. But not this one. Not even a little bit.
The great thing about Sparrow is that he is equal parts pantomime and regret. He’s got a huge facade about him; pretending to have things he doesn’t actually own, and letting others credit him with legendary feats he never really committed. But what makes him more than a cheap fraud is that he really is a hell of a pirate, with a hell of a backstory, and a hell of a good reason to want to go after the bad guys. This duality to Sparrow is what makes him so interesting and unpredictable—we go from one scene in which he is outsmarted by Elizabeth Swann’s torching of a secret rum stash to another scene where Jack manages to double- and triple-cross every other character in the story so that not only does he get what he really wants, so does everybody else around him.
It’s a rare scoundrel who makes us all kind of wish we encountered him, even if we know we’d end up on the short end of whatever mischief the guy’s planning. Which is why the moment of truth in this movie isn’t when Jack battles Barbarossa on a pile of hidden gold or when he escapes the hangman’s noose one final time. It’s when we are introduced to him, and he sails triumphantly into port atop the mast of a swiftly sinking dinghy, timing his first step onto the dock precisely with the boat’s final moment above the waterline. If that’s not a perfect introduction that tells us everything we need to know about Captain Jack Sparrow, then nothing is. He might be the worst pirate we’ve ever seen. but we have seen him, savvy?