It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
The way I see it, when we’re talking about picking the “best summer movie,” we’re not talking about simply the best film released in the summertime— if that was the question, this would just be a matter of making a list of the best of all time and then filtering by release date, which would be tragically boring — but the film most noteworthy for its uniquely summer-esque qualities.
To me, an ideal summer movie should be the cinematic equivalent of those emblematic summer snacks — popsicles, lemonade, cotton candy eaten at a carnival — that is, it should be fun, colorful, cloying enough to rot your teeth, and have minimal nutritional value. Which brings me to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It’s about fifty minutes longer than necessary, decidedly dumb, over the top in just about every way imaginable, and so. Much. Fun.
Let me acknowledge one simple fact from the get-go: this film is braindead. That’s part of the charm. It’s like a big, dumb, lovable puppy in movie form — two hours and twenty minutes featuring approximately zero seconds of intellectual stimulation.
And you know what, that is absolutely A-okay. Your brain works hard, it deserves a break sometimes, and as far as being intelligent, thinking beings, watching The Curse of the Black Pearl definitely qualifies as “taking a break.”
Creating truly entertaining dumb content is actually an elusive and ephemeral art. The line between fun-dumb and just-plain-dumb is nigh impossible to define or verbalize, though the difference in viewing experience is night and day, and relatively few films manage to succeed in being entertainingly dumb instead of falling into the territory of painfully stupid. I am no sequel apologist—as far as I’m concerned, all of the installments after Black Pearl can walk the plank—but on the first try, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise manages to hit the bullseye of dumb fun.
It’s got everything you could ever want from mindless entertainment. Extravagantly choreographed swashbuckling and sword fights that defy the laws of physics. Harebrained schemes and daring rescues. Bold declarations of love and doe-eyed pining. One-liners about corsets and really cool hats. Jonathan Pryce fighting a disembodied zombie pirate arm over a wig. And yes, you might lose a few brain cells in the viewing process, but you know what, they died happy.
Summer is the season of happily wasting time—the time for sunbathing and lazy afternoons, the part of the year where students gladly forget a sizable portion of the information teachers spent all the other parts of the year drilling into their brains. In naming a “Best Summer Movie,” we should pick a title that truly reflects a season defined by warmth and sun and the kinds of fun that don’t involve thinking too much. For both its strengths and what its critics would call weaknesses, The Curse of the Black Pearl is exactly such a film.
But to really drive home my case, let me double down on some of The Curse of the Black Pearl‘s defining features.
Love it or hate it, Pirates of the Caribbean has one of the most iconic scores from the past twenty years. You would be hard-pressed to find a member of the movie-going public who can’t recognize “He’s a Pirate” from a few bars—and who wouldn’t then end up humming it periodically throughout the day, because damn is it catchy.
Summer is prime earworm season—nearly every year there’s That Song that seems to get stuck in the collective subconscious to the point whereby September rolls around most everybody has both memorized the lyrics and never wants to hear it ever again—and in 2003, one such catchy tune was a theme from a film score.
Just look at the credits—Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt get top billing, but several reinforcements ultimately had to be called in due to an extremely tight schedule, including Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones and Westworld fame and frequent Greg Berlanti collaborator Blake Neely. Basically, it’s the movie scoring equivalent of a superhero team-up.
Admittedly, the cutting edge CGI of 2003 looks pretty grim by the light of 2018. Still, the way time has made the CGI skeleton pirates look hokey in retrospect doesn’t really do all that much damage to film’s charm. Whether you’re seven and this is high octane nightmare fuel or you’re in your twenties and it looks ridiculous, it works either way.
That said, the CGI zombie pirates aren’t really what I’m getting at here. What I’m getting at here is the set and costume design. Oh, the Georgian era. Technically, the timeline isn’t specified in the film, but the fashion looks pretty Georgian to me, so we’re gonna go with it because I am a sucker for the Georgian era. In retrospect, considering this film came out when I was six years old, it might actually be at least in part responsible for that. And perhaps my fondness for blacksmiths. But I digress. The Georgian era was an age of intricacy and grandeur when the trend was to go big while remaining ornately detailed. And, most importantly, it was before men’s fashion started getting boring. Panache actually meant something back in those days.
In other words, it’s a movie full of pretty people wearing pretty costumes on pretty sets: the perfect setting for a film that’s all about pure audiovisual stimulation.
I’m not going to waste my time trying to justify the film’s overarching plot—basically, blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) teams up with a pirate (Johnny Depp) to rescue governor’s daughter (Keira Knightley) from other (cursed) pirates—which is admittedly overlong and features unnecessary detours. However, I am going to point out that the stereotypical summer cinema-going experience is going to the movies to get out of the house mid-heatwave while staying in the air-conditioned indoors. In such scenarios, a film that’s somewhat longer than need be hardly counts as a bad thing, so long as it doesn’t start lagging. And the first Pirates of the Caribbean doesn’t, thanks to its super-sized helping of panache. About 85% of it comes from Johnny Depp as Captain(!) Jack Sparrow—a performance of which Roger Ebert wrote, “[t]here has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie.”
Ultimately, The Curse of the Black Pearl is best viewed as a series of moments. Entertainingly dumb, highly quotable, wonderfully meme-able moments, from Jack’s iconic entrance, which manages to be simultaneously majestic and pathetic, to “Stop blowing holes in my ship!” (and if you don’t get why that screen cap would be decidedly useful in certain situations, you might be less of a nerd than me, but that’s okay), to the “You are, without a doubt, the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of”/”But you have heard of me” exchange, and many more.
Through the work of fans, Pirates of the Caribbean has become a gift that keeps on giving—two and a half hours of fun that have inspired the creation of enjoyable memes and fanworks providing untold hours of further entertainment, perhaps most notably “Why is the Rum Gone?”, a relatively early and popular (28 million+ views) Youtube movie dialogue remix video—now a thriving genre—which is so incredibly mid-2000s in every way that watching it now feels like traveling in a time machine back to 2007.
And then, of course, Disney also officially gave us all those sequels, but let’s quit while we’re ahead and just pretend those didn’t happen.