Pirate movies were dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

The pirate movie had died many times since its heyday, from the early-'20s through the mid-'50s. It had a very high-profile death in 1986, with Roman Polanski's long-gestating Pirates, an enormous flop; it had another in 1995, with Renny Harlin's tormented Cutthroat Island, a flop so gargantuan it bankrupted a production company and ended several careers. And from that death there could be hardly any recovery at all.

None of this seemed to matter to the Walt Disney Company, which in the early '00s engaged in one of those horribly ill-advised adventures in live-action filmmaking that it frequently gets caught up in, spending gigantic piles of money on projects that will plainly never pay off. Before this, TRON; after this, John Carter. Just Disney doing what it does: making fortunes and then pissing them away on the most unfathomable nonsense. It was, in this particular case, an exercise in brand extension: after years of basing its theme park attractions on its hit movies, the company had finally decided to try and base some hit movies on its theme park attractions. The obvious badness of this idea should be obvious, and to those of us following this new scheme back in those days, it was; but we are not the executives in charge of Walt Disney Pictures. And so it was, that what we can arguably call the three most iconic brands from Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom were thrown into development as motion pictures: the Country Bear Jamboree, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The first and last of the films that resulted - 2002's The Country Bears and Thanksgiving, 2003's The Haunted Mansion - were precisely what you'd expect, and audiences and critics responded accordingly. But despite having perhaps the most marks against it on paper, being a dead genre and a theme park adaptation and all, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl fared better than its siblings. A lot better, in fact. So much better that I don't have an appropriate way to quantify it. The Curse of the Black Pearl - a subtitle cunningly added when it seemed that there might be a franchise to milk from this picture, and oh! such a financially robust franchise it did turn out to be - is a genuinely surprising film, where nothing seems particularly special or interesting about it until you're actually watching the thing, and finding it to be one of a handful of legitimately bold, original summer tentpoles of the 2000s. Not that summer tentpoles as a class are all that bold or original to start with, but that's exactly why we need more movies like this, and fewer movies like... like this very movie's three (so far) sequels, for one thing.

It is the most obvious thing in the world to glance at the film and propose that it's effectiveness begins with the live-wire performance given by Johnny Depp in what becomes, retroactively, the central role. But sometimes things become obvious because they are demonstrably true. Depp has since burned through more goodwill than many actors will ever receive, and his character creation has become mechanical shtick: half of his characters subsequent to 2003 feel like they were created by filling in a Mad Libs. And with that being the case, it's hard to recall just how extraordinarily fresh his Captain Jack Sparrow felt when it was new, such a chaotic, unexpected high-wire act that even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose hatred of both genre films and comedy is as unyielding as a mountain range, was obliged to throw an Oscar nomination his way. He serves the function here that Bugs Bunny or Harpo Marx does: infiltrating a closed system and throwing it into complete disarray with his total disregard for the rules governing the behavior of characters in movies. An 18th Century pirate swanning around like a coked-out rock star, with a whole makeup counter on his face? Why not? This totally changes the texture of the film: what should be a perfectly generic action-adventure movie about a heroic prettyboy chasing an unattainable hot chick who has been kidnapped by the bad guys can never manage to find its genre footing, because there's Jack Sparrow, wandering along with his physically erratic comedy and slurred line deliveries, decompressing the film and turning it into something else completely. There's still so much inventiveness, a clear sense of getting away with something absolutely delightful, underneath every moment of Depp's performance, even after his three subsequent performances as the same character should have curdled everything that made him interesting. Jack Sparrow in Curse of the Black Pearl is just as exciting now as he was in 2003, in defiance of all good sense.

Whether Depp came up with that on his own, or whether he was guided to it by Gore Verbinski, it's certainly the case that this was a flawless meeting of actor and director. Verbinski had, at this point, made three features: the first, Mousehunt, was a live-action movie made with the physics and logic of a Tom & Jerry cartoon; the third, The Ring, was an exercise in probing the limits of terror available to a PG-13 horror movie (the second, The Mexican, is a film that nobody in the world has ever seen, despite it starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts). And with The Curse of the Black Pearl, he apparently decided to exactly split the difference between those two, and throw swashbuckling action into the mix just for the hell of it. The film is a cartoon, no two ways about it: there are physics-defying falls and fight scenes, wacky visual jokes ("wouldja look at that! He got a fork stuck in his eye!"), and snazzily-timed cuts that function as punchlines all over the place. The film is also a creepy-as-fuck story about zombie pirates skulking about in the moonlight. It never seems to occur to Verbinski to separate these two modes: there isn't another movie this side of Army of Darkness to make so much out of slapstick involving skeletons.

Verbinski's wild, erratic juggling of seemingly incompatible tones fits perfectly with Depp's thoroughly contemporary, chaotic performance of Jack Sparrow, and between them they manages to make The Curse of the Black Pearl a weird, dazzling display of energy and comedy piercing through terror as the terror curls around high-spirited action sequences that add a sense of grandeur to the comedy. The film can so readily tap into this energy that even its many apparent flaws simply don't find a foothold to disupt it. These include its lumpy shape - after an opening 40 minutes that pile action atop action almost nonstop, the film suddenly drops into a lumbering quest which decides, about 90 minutes in, to start over again fresh - its terribly bland lovers played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley (the latter of whom, at least, is capable of much better than the feisty damsel this film asks her to be, though I do adore her one-on-one moments with Depp), and its messy climax, the one point in the whole film that the generally sharp cutting by Stephen Rivkin, Arthur Schmidt, and Craig Wood lets us down. Honestly, it always occurs to me (but only after I'm done watching it), that the film really shouldn't work at all: that it does is testament to the devil-may-care attitude animating it, among other things' things like Dariusz Wolski splendid cinematography, which can be spooky as a campfire story in one moment, and a gaspingly gorgeous advertisement for the visual grandeur of the Caribbean in the next, and the wonderfully invigorating score by Klaus Badelt and a bunch of other composers who pitched in here or there (prominently among them Hans Zimmer), which includes what I'd likely call the last great piece of franchise theme music. Or just the wit and banter of Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio's script, which manages the weird assignment of capturing the sensibility of a theme park boat ride inside a Spielbergian adventure romp.

This is all the things popcorn movies should be: fun, energetic, simple enough to quickly grasp but full enough to not seem stupid, anchored by strong personalities among all the side characters (Geoffrey Rush's florid villain is a great bit of acting in its own right, unfairly overshadowed by Depp), and a cohesive world with a sense of history and depth. And that, coupled with the unmatchable scale of the Disney marketing machine and Jerry Bruckheimer's laser-like instincts for what audiences want to see, is what allowed The Curse of the Black Pearl to break a greater curse still: the matter of what audiences like. And yet, there was more to it than that: Depp and Verbinski and Disney's marketing all joined forces again ten years later to make another marriage of horror, action, and cartoon physics, The Lone Ranger, and it came nowhere near overcoming the contemporary audience's distaste for Westerns; we can say that it simply wasn't as good (because it wasn't), but then, why wasn't it?

Well, that's the alchemy of it. Everything came together at exactly the right time in exactly the right balance, just when the world was ready to be receptive to it, and there you go: the blockbuster landscape changed just that little bit, and now pirates are cool again. Sometimes, all of the parts of the Hollywood machine click together just perfectly, and magic happens, and one has a renewed love not for cinema, and not for filmmaking, but for the splashy, transformative power of The Movies.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2003
-The most eagerly anticipated sequels of the 2000s very quickly become the most despised sequels of the 2000s, as the Wachowskis' The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions underwhelm
-After years of cranking out largely unliked genre pictures, Clint Eastwood returns to everybody's good graces as an Important American Director with Mystic River
-The grand era of horror remakes begins with the Michael Bay production of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2003
-Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring and Park Chan-wook's Oldboy are among the most prominent emissaries of the new South Korean cinema to international film culture
-Sylvain Chomet directs the captivating, charmingly warped animated film The Triplets of Belleville
-The ensemble-based romantic comedy is invented by the British Love Actually, so feel free to blame it

Reviews in this series
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Verbinski, 2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Verbinski, 2006)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Verbinski, 2007)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Marshall, 2011)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (RΓΈnning & Sandberg, 2017)