Filmmakers generally make films for the sake of art. Sure, there’s the whole putting bread on the table part, but most of the people on the floor working on a movie put their heart and soul into it. For a considerable part of the audiences, films are art too. There’s something quite unique about pictures capturing an essence unattainable through other platforms. But for the most part, people go to the movies to be entertained. There’s not always a need for relevant social criticism or revealing subjects. One does not exclude the other, art and entertainment can perfectly blend together. Unfortunately, not too often are movies that solely aim for entertainment considered to be ‘great films’ or even ‘good’ for that matter. There’s a taboo on praising purely entertaining films for their value. Somehow blockbusters that aim for the masses simply by focusing on spectacle or comedy, are easily taken for granted. Which is ridiculous, especially when it comes to one of the smartest, fast-paced and deviously entertaining films of the all time: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’.
The idea of zombies and pirates is so ridiculous that it’s a miracle on itself that it was allowed in a major blockbuster. The reason why the absurd premise works, why any of the two-and-half hour full-on crazy works, is because the movie puts all of its absurd components on second place and treats them as inevitable, while focusing on characters. Yes, the curse and the Black Pearl are both important, but they’re more like guidelines in the game of skilled and not-so skilled players who favor winning over anything else. Zombies, curses, pirates, nothing truly stops the protagonists from going after what they want. All the crazy that ensues is just collateral damage.
Leading the pack is the scheming, childish and witty Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp truly plays the role he was born to play, seemingly having more fun than anyone, simulating drunk behavior and popping one-liner after one-liner. The character itself is extremely over the top and that truly doesn’t matter. Before his name is even spoken, he’s introduced on a sinking boat as he enters the harbor of Port Royal, qualifying as one of the greatest character introductions ever. Whatever Jack does afterwards is a delicious mystery, slowly unraveling in its own pace.
In another example of subtlety, the story actually centers Elisabeth Swann, who’s a refreshing take on the damsel in distress. Yes, she’s in distress a lot, but more often then not, the men who aid for her rescue are rather useless and Elisabeth handles herself quite well. Highly uncomfortable in the dresses, somewhat obsessed with pirate culture, Elisabeth actively strolls through kidnappings, intimidations and sacrificial rituals while packing punches and plotting exits. She does all this while never losing touch with her feminine side, mostly using it for her advantage.
Weakest of them all is easily Will. Yes, he’s far from just a pretty protagonist, as he struggles with his heritage and is just as clumsy and clueless as he is skilled and heroic. Yet, in a rich world such as this one, where even supporting roles are charming and original, Will seems to be the only cliche. After all, none of the extraordinary events in his life would happen if he wasn’t the outsider in love with the unreachable pretty lady.
Still, as Will wants to save Elisabeth, and Elisabeth wants to save herself and Will, and Jack seemingly only wants the Pearl, the story unwinds twist after twist, location after location. Even keeping count of something as simple as to which ship the protagonists are currently on will require your undivided attention. That and the rush of extravagant situations that follow each other make the film feel like an adventure on itself. From the attraction inspired Tortuga, which embodies about everything we haven’t seen about pirate life in too long, to a remote island that issues a generation’s obsession with rum. There’s an actual treasure. A mute with a parrot. There’s a zombie monkey. Absolutely everything about this grand-scaled production is thought through in detail. Not just so it works logically and realistically, but so it aims to have a clear bond with the audience. Everything is a running joke, creating the illusion the audience is in on a secret. The plot is complicated enough to make your head scratch. If it had any less charming characters it wouldn’t sell. But it does and ensures that, upon reviewal, even a decade later, the story’s infrastructure will entertain you all over again.
What ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ manages to do, more so than any other big tentpole movie afterwards or even any of its sequels, is to entice true genuine fun. It doesn’t want to appeal with its extraordinary premise, or even stops to show off its lead’s good looks. It doesn’t try to seem anything other than what it is: entertainment. From the moment a young Elisabeth meets a young Will, the story unfolds rapidly, often leaving the audience clueless as to what’s going on. The character’s own motivations are the driving force behind everything that happens. That only works if the plotting is actually paid off and, with Jack’s manipulation coming to a head in the film’s climax, it certainly is. Meanwhile what happens is incredibly stupid. From Jack trying to escape by slinging on a pole to Elisabeth failing to separate a sword from its shield. These characters are not invincible super-heroes. They’re actually a bunch of losers and that grounds the crazy surrounding them. The movie also doesn’t waste one minute without a zinger, witty comeback or sober analysis of what’s going on. The entire cast is funny, nay hilarious, making you fully aware that nothing happening on screen isn’t intended.
As random and fun the movie may seem, it’s still a great movie. The plot fulfills the tough task of balancing a broad ensemble of diverse characters with different motivations in one coherent story. Depp is allowed to perform one of the best acting performances of the decade. The extensive set decoration, most apparent in the glorious ships, creates a wonderful world. Klaus Badelt’s legendary score, despite borrowing a lot from previous Jerry Bruckheimer productions, requires no pop artist to sound appealing. The sheer scope of the movie is so big that it easily could feel ingenuine towards the group of leading characters that navigate through it. Instead, it only offers more wonderous intervals along the way to releaving the curse.
Pirates may not be the masterwork that elevates film to its greater purpose but it is one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It’s humor, story and characters are memorable enough to rinse the bad taste of future attempts to copy its essence. Unless such blockbusters pay the same amount of attention to detail, complicated storytelling and unique characters, Pirates will continue to sail by itself. Any film that spends a decade as one of the most entertaining ways to spend time is certainly a work of art.
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Screenplay by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio
with Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley
Released July 9, 2003