In 2003, I approached Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl with trepidation. The movie caught me by surprise. Below, I’ll restore my original Looking Closer review to this site — it’s been missing for many years.

At the time, I was writing my weekly Film Forum column for Christianity Today. I noted these early reviews:

Some film critics in the religious press are offering early raves. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it “the kind of rousing, swashbuckling adventure that hasn’t been seen since Errol Flynn last swung a cutlass.”

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) agrees that it “could’ve been a lazy attempt to capitalize on a brand name, but it actually delivers the thrills, laughs and romance audiences demand from a summer popcorn flick.” He adds a caution about the film’s heavy doses of “creepy violence.”

The critic at Movieguide writes, “Despite some pagan, occult elements, Pirates…is a swashbuckling jolly good time at the movies, with some positive moral and redemptive themes.” However, he seems to contradict himself by concluding, “The pagan, occult aspect… spoils its moral, redemptive elements.” He adds that the film’s fairy-tale-variety “curse” will be controversial for “Bible-believing Christians and Jews.” (Non-Bible-believing Christians will apparently not be bothered.)

You can revisit that edition of Film Forum here.

And then I published this at Looking Closer…

Growing up, I had an aversion to amusement park rides. They looked noisy, expensive, and I had a feeling they’d make me sick to my stomach. After college I was reluctantly talked into a rollercoaster ride by a girlfriend. Lo and behold, I loved it. And the girl and I lived happily ever after.

Similarly, I have been dreading this idea of films “based on” amusement park rides. Disney has been hunting for ways to keep their vision fresh and engaging, and this idea smacks of desperation. But when I saw the cast lined up for Pirates of the Caribbean — Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce, and Orlando “Legolas” Bloom — I consented to sit through a screening. I was not optimistic. There hasn’t been a decent pirate movie made in my lifetime.

But five minutes into the film, my apprehension had walked the plank. (Yes, I’m going to say it now…) Shiver me timbers — Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is fun! It’s also funny. It delivers everything I’ve wanted to see in a big-budget pirate movie since I was a kid. It avoids the pitfalls into which Spielberg’s disastrous Hook plunged. Echoing the ambition, mischief, boyish glee, and whimsical wit of 80s adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Goonies, and The Princess Bride, Gore Verbinski has concocted a film that manages to include all of the predictable pirate clichés and yet remains unpredictable and fresh. Following the Wachowski Brothers, Ang Lee, and other heavy hitters, Verbinski (who directed The Ring and The Mexican) steps up to the plate as the summer’s underdog and outplays them all, hitting a solid triple.

The triple — if I may continue my bad sports metaphor — consists of 1) yet another knockout performance by Johnny Depp (his funniest yet, in fact); 2) some impressive ILM special effects (truly astonishing in the film’s frenzied finale); and 3) one of the funniest and most unpredictable adventure-movie scripts to come along in a good while, credited to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (AladdinAntz, and Shrek).

The best thing in the film is also a threat to its success. As Depp sails through, his performance as the lone pirate Captain Jack Sparrow is so inspired, so zany, and his costume so outrageous, that he nearly overturns the other actors in his wake. He keeps us slightly off-balance in every scene, because he himself is off-balance, staggering punch-drunk and stammering in slurred speech. The cosmetics crew used all 64 crayons on his face. The beaded dreadlocks framing his features are a giveaway that Sparrow’s more interested in the style of piracy than its substance. If there’s a sequel, he’ll probably be sporting more golden teeth due to the number of times women slap him for his infidelities. Depp clearly enjoys his makeup, and so does Verbinski, who never lets his puckish supporting character stray too far from the focus. Verbinski is one of the few directors who taken advantage of Depp’s splendid talents — the others would be Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton — and he gets a performance out of him that would earn an Oscar nomination if there were any justice.

Sparrow is a vigilante pirate with claims of famous escapes and derring-do. (The key word there is “claims.”) After the film’s spooky opening sequence has passed, Sparrow sails into port in the grandest entrance of any big screen character I can remember. We quickly learn that Sparrow’s not welcome in this harbor, and neither are any other pirates. Jonathan Pryce plays the local governor whose daughter Elizabeth is frowning at her suitors. Elizabeth is played by Keira Knightley, whose radiance reminds me of Uma Thurman. Even a tightly strapped bodice can’t hold back her, um, strong personality. She makes this independent young heroine more than just the cookie-cutter feminist that has become the politically-correct anachronism of films set in the distant past.

Elizabeth is being pursued by a stuck-up soldier (Jack Davenport), but her affections lie with a young blacksmith — Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) — whose secret she has quietly kept since she was a child. Turner was pulled from the wreckage of sinking ships after a pirate raid many years ago. Turner’s past and parentage are a mystery, but his future seems secure due to his skill as a swordsman and sword-maker. Like the governor, he hates pirates, and so he puts up a spectacular defense when the township is attacked by the legendary pirates of a ship called the Black Pearl. But the battle reveals that he may have more in common with his enemies than he’d like to admit. Before he can make sense of it, the laws of alliteration have placed the damsel in distress, and Will pulls on the boots of responsibility and sets out to rescue her.

He teams up with Sparrow, of course, who is in this for reasons of his own. The Black Pearl was once his ship, but his crew mutinied under the direction of a dastardly villain called Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush.) Barbossa, who leers and snarls in a pirate dialect that should have earned him subtitles, makes it very clear why he has captured Elizabeth. She has in her possession the last piece of treasure that the pirates once recklessly spent. In spending it, they brought upon themselves a terrible curse that consigns them to lives as living dead – ugly pirates by day, decomposing zombies in the moonlight. Thus they want their money back, so to speak. If they can recover the gold, they’ll be healed and whole once again. So… to sum up… the pirates want the gold, Elizabeth has the gold, Elizabeth wants Will, Will wants Elizabeth, and Sparrow wants his old ship back. Thus the games begin.

Reciting the pirate’s code, a snarling seaman growls, “Any man who falls behind stays behind.” That’s true for the audience too. Pay attention to the specifics of the curse, and you’ll be impressed with just how cleverly Verbinski employs them in the finale. He uses this opportunity to pay tribute to Raiders, giving us a mischievous monkey, poisoned fruit, a medallion on a chain that everybody wants, a drinking contest, villains of the decomposing variety, and two scenes that resemble the opening of the Ark of the Covenant. But there are plenty of inventive twists as well. The best involves an unexpected stay on a remote and deserted island with two of the film’s leading characters. And Hans Zimmer’s score is one of his very best, a boisterous and dramatic accompaniment that John Williams could not have surpassed.

For all of its wit and whimsy, Pirates deserves a few cautions for the younger viewers. Pirates do not make good role models, so parents will probably want to make sure small children do not come away overly enamored of Sparrow the pickpocket, Sparrow the womanizer, Sparrow the vigilante. It’s the same dilemma facing Elizabeth’s father. When she fingers a piece of pirate treasure and murmurs, “I find it all fascinating!”, her father appropriately replies, “That’s what concerns me.” Fortunately, the film does not conclude with Elizabeth “going pirate”; she remains a virtuous, honest, and admirable hero who is more willing to see past a person’s status and mascara to the heart within.

In the end, greed is clearly drawn as wicked and self-destructive. True love gets a few moments in the sun. And when you come right down to it, Sparrow’s virtues overpower his imperfections. It’s what sets him apart from his nasty decomposing colleagues. When the legalistic authorities decide to execute Sparrow for his trivial wrongs in spite of his life-saving heroics, a self-righteous soldier declares, “One good deed is not enough to cure a man.” Sparrow snaps back, “But it is enough to condemn him?”

If viewers come away from the movie with any complaint, it will probably be that Depp’s efforts make him the more engaging romantic hero, and that Elizabeth’s turn toward Turner is disappointing. The film’s most glaring weakness is that its hero, played by the capable and charismatic Bloom, is reduced to being a forgettable supporting character, eclipsed by his brilliant comic relief. Too bad Verbinski couldn’t find a way to show off more of Bloom’s capacity for action and stunts. Even when the cameras weren’t rolling on Fellowship of the Ring, Bloom was playing an action hero, jumping out of airplanes and bungee jumping across New Zealand. In Pirates of the Caribbean, he crosses swords a few times and spends the rest of the movie on the sidelines gazing with longing at Keira Knightley… or is it with envy at Johnny Depp?