A movie about pirates. Based on a theme park ride. Starring the eighth lead from Lord of the Rings and the second fiddle from Bend It Like Beckham. From the director of The Ring remake (which was good) and The Mexican (which was, well, The Mexican.) Yes, expectations were let’s-say-mild for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a film which looked on paper like a high-concept travesty-in-waiting. (The full title was ten words long.)
But there was a wild card in Disney’s deck. When Pirates arrived in July 2003, Johnny Depp was a well-respected actor known for his eclectic taste in choosing projects: In the previous half-decade, he’d been in Oscar-y indie films like Chocolat, dark dramas like From Hell, and weirdo horror non-gems like The Astronaut’s Wife. His already-fruitful collaboration with Tim Burton had most recently produced Sleepy Hollow; 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was somewhere between being a box office flop and a DVD cult hit.
Depp wasn’t quite a star…and then Pirates of the Caribbean made him a megastar. As Jack Sparrow, Depp gave one of the most entertaining performances ever seen in a giant-sized blockbuster. Everyone tried to do a Jack Sparrow impression; there was a cultural moment when saying the word “Savvy?” became an actual thing real people did. Left to his own wild devices, Depp raised the game of the whole movie. Most big movies feel weighed down by all the excess, but Depp has wild chemistry with everyone onscreen — particularly Geoffrey Rush, who’s having almost as much fun as Depp in the bad-pirate role.
Pirates might be the most summer-y of summer films: Director Gore Verbinski crafted a world that feels purposefully ahistorical, less an actual representation of the reality of piracy and more of a fantasy set in a wide world of tropical islands, shadowlit treasure caves, and the bright blue ocean spreading as far as the eye could see. That’s why it comes in at No. 19 on our Summer Blockbuster Countdown.
Release Date: July 9, 2003
Box Office: $305 million domestic ($46 million opening weekend); $654 million worldwide
Pirates was the fourth-highest grossing film at the global box office in 2003, behind The Return of the King, Finding Nemo, and The Matrix Reloaded. It only held the top spot for one weekend, but it had significant legs: It didn’t leave the box office top ten until October.
The Competition: Pirates of the Caribbean opened the same weekend as the movie verison of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, thus confirming that no one would ever talk about the movie version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen again. July 2003 was top-heavy with sequels that performed decently at the box office but were immediately forgotten by time — Terminator 3, Legally Blonde 2, Bad Boys II, Tomb Raider 2, Spy Kids 3D — which made the movie’s unusual tone stand out even more. (It also hit theaters just one weekend after another nautically themed film, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas — the last time DreamWorks ever tried to make a classical 2D animated film.)
What EW Said: “It’s ornate and breathless, this hoopla of a pirate story about honor and thievery and drawn swords and gilt buttons; the movie is also undecided about whether to emulate the dashing tradition of Treasure Island and Captain Blood or, in bloodless postmodern style, to wink at what it appears to honor. C“ — Lisa Schwarzbaum
Cultural Impact Then: Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t just make Johnny Depp a star. In the immediate aftermath of Pirates‘ success, he seemed more like a force of nature: An eccentric performer who became famous by going his own way. It helped that he had a steady supply of films hit theaters soon afterwards, featuring ever-weirder hair and ever-more-bizarre affectations (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Secret Window.)
Depp received an Oscar nomination for his turn as Sparrow, a rare nomination for a comedic performance and an even rarer nomination for the star of a megabudgeted blockbuster adventure. Although it’s always tenuous to generalize wildly about the tastes of a generation, it’s quite possible that Depp made pirates cool again. And lest we focus too much on the star, the film also officially launched Keira Knightley’s career as Hollywood’s go-to Beautiful British Ingenue.
Cultural Staying Power: And so began the Johnny Depp decade, a remarkable period in Hollywood’s history during which major studios frequently devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to films that mostly centered on Johnny Depp wearing bizarre makeup and doing ever-more-outlandish accents. (Three of those films made a billion dollars.) And it really was a decade: Almost ten years to the day that Pirates of the Caribbean hit theaters, Depp reunited with the Pirates dream team to release The Lone Ranger, the specific moment that people became openly skeptical of the actor’s outré talents.
Still, he had a great run. So did the Pirates franchise, which spawned three oversized sequels that all performed huge at the box office, even though none of them were nearly as fun as the first film. Although it seems weird to attribute too much importance to a series as lightweight as Pirates, it’s worth considering just how perfectly the first film defined a certain kind of Hollywood product: Epic but fun, filled with action but safe for kids, spooky but not really scary, set in a stylized universe perfect for multimedia expansion. Pirates hit the same year as the final Lord of the Rings film, and in hindsight, it’s possible to see how Black Pearl was sort of LOTR for Dummies: A trilogy-baiting uber-franchise, with all the elaborate special effects and none of the Big Theme importance.
So the films that followed in its wake were less than stellar: So what? Eleven years later, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl remains a jaunty delight, a mash-up of tones that shouldn’t work: An Errol Flynn adventure starring Keith Richards shot like an epic fantasy cartoon. Savvy?