One would think it a curse to have to transform a theme park attraction into a summer cinematic spectacle, but shiver me timbers, the only hex that burdens Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is its unwieldy title. This rollicking adventure from director Gore Verbinski is in love with the sights and sounds of pirate movie tropes—sailors swinging from ship ropes, sword fights, cannon balls flying through the air, glistening pirate bounty—and benefits immensely from both the filmmaker’s successful fusion of arch comedy, swashbuckling action, mild horror (a trick neither his execrable The Mexican, nor his leaden The Ring, could pull off), and his willingness to let Johnny Depp overact his heart out.
Depp, dressed up in a variety of colorful scarves that only partially contain his unruly tangle of dreadlocks and beaded hair, plays infamous pirate rascal Captain Jack Sparrow with limp wrists, a prancing gait, and a lilting British drawl that turns every “th” sound into an “f.” An androgynous king of the high seas, Sparrow is a gracefully asexual fop who, by embodying both feminine prettiness and masculine brashness, seems well aware of how to bend it like Beckham. Flashing his gold-toothed smile with a roguish delight that playfully hints at the naughtiness being concocted inside his scraggly head, Depp commands the screen so forcefully that it’s difficult to sustain interest in the film when he’s not front and center. During such lulls, one is forced to contend with the de facto love story between blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), who is kidnapped by the undead crew of the legendary Black Pearl for possessing a piece of their cursed gold. Swann’s abduction and Turner’s quest to save her (which involves enlisting Sparrow’s help) is the plot’s catalyst, but since Pirates’ greatest asset is Depp’s uninhibited antics, things tend to drag when the puckish Sparrow is confined to mere supporting player.
Bloom does an admirable job looking like a mini-Errol Flynn, and Knightley’s delicate features clash winningly with her character’s unladylike feistiness, but both are regularly upstaged by Depp, Geoffrey Rush as the decrepit Captain Barbossa, and a gaggle of peripheral characters (pirates and British alike) who contribute to the richness of Verbinski’s theme park-inspired tapestry. Narrative repetition muddles up the film’s second act, in which the adventurers find themselves visiting, and then revisiting, the same locales and skirmishes, but the occasionally monotonous escapades are bolstered by some playful Harryhausen-esque CGI villains—the Black Pearl’s pirates, when caught in a blade of moonlight, are revealed to be walking, talking skeletons—and the director’s eagerness to embrace, while slyly poking fun at, the hoary clichés his film must dutifully adhere to. Like the hidden stash of Caribbean rum that Sparrow and Swann enjoy after being stranded on a remote island by the dastardly Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an intoxicating delight that abounds with woozy charm and delectable spiciness.