On June 28, 2003, the premiere for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was held at Disneyland. Guests walked on what was called “the world’s longest red carpet,” one that stretched all the way down Main Street, and sat on specially installed bleachers facing the Rivers of America, where a giant screen towered in front of Tom Sawyer Island, steps away from the original Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. The premiere was the first ever held at Disneyland and was the first indication that the movie, which was something of an unknown up until that point, was destined for greatness. At this point we take Pirates of the Caribbean, with its numerous ancillary spin-offs and sequels (the fifth film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, is out in the summer of 2017), as a wonderful constant. But in 2003 it was quietly breaking new ground, for a number of reasons.
One of the biggest ways that Pirates of the Caribbean broke ground was in the way it managed to connect with audiences while still being a pirate movie. During the film’s development period, which began back in 1993 with an initial pitch by eventual co-screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the cinematic landscape was littered with the sunken ships of costly maritime flops. (The most notable seafaring failure was Cutthroat Island, a 1995 epic that cost $100 million and made $10 million.) While there were a number of exciting elements that made Pirates of the Caribbean connect; producer Jerry Bruckheimer credits the movie’s supernatural undercurrents as being the thing that really set it apart.
Ghost stories and tales of cursed gold have long been part of pirate lore, but haven’t been folded into the actual narrative of a pirate’s story. This was a part of the initial Rossio/Elliott script and, when they returned to the fold, the thing that they felt strongest about retaining. (Rossio told Disney brass at the time that, “It’ll be a disaster if you don’t include supernatural elements.”) Those elements remained, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl escaped the curse of doomed pirates movies.
Those supernatural elements also allowed the film to skew closer to its theme park attraction roots. The original attraction opened at Disneyland in 1967 and was famous for being the last ride to be personally supervised by Walt Disney, who had originally envisioned it as a walkthrough wax museum. (Subsequent iterations of the ride opened at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 1973, Tokyo Disneyland in 1983 and Disneyland Paris in 1992.) The attraction is rich with atmosphere and one of the first images in the ride is of a reanimated skeleton clutching a steering wheel (this image also served as the basis for the first teaser poster for the film). There is an element of supernatural spookiness in the attraction that translates well to the big screen, and the fact that the movie was based on a theme park attraction was also rather groundbreaking.
While we take the “based on a theme park attraction” conceit for granted now (with a number of big screen adaptations in various stages of development), at the time it was a brand new phenomenon. Mission to Mars, which was loosely based on a classic Tomorrowland attraction (and went on to inspire, even more loosely, an Epcot attraction), opened in 2000, but the links between the film and the ride were tenuous at best and not emphasized in the marketing materials or pre-release press. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was based on a ride that was an unquestionable, canonical classic. People who have never visited a Disney Park know what Pirates of the Caribbean is. The movie didn’t shy away from the ride; it embraced it. And each subsequent sequel has added more of the attraction’s imagery and mood and embraced them, while the attraction incorporates more and more new details from each new film. It’s a lovingly cyclical movement.
Another thing that we don’t think about was that, at the time of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’s release, Johnny Depp was not a movie star. Sure, he had proven himself a heartthrob and an enviable talent, but in terms of box office numbers, he had never broken through, instead favoring starring roles in quirky films by filmmakers like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Lasse Hallström. The first Pirates of the Caribbean proved what many had suspected: He was a bona fide movie star. Depp brought something unquantifiable to Pirates of the Caribbean; a kind of ragged mystique that fell in line with the movie’s roughhewn aesthetics and sensibilities. And while Depp contributed so much, he was rewarded with even more: a place amongst the pantheon of Hollywood leading men.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl also broke ground in terms of visual effects (made even more mind-boggling by the quick post-production turnaround time). Make-up had been used to bring pirates to life in previous films, but Pirates of the Caribbean had cursed pirates who turned into otherworldly skeletons when they stepped into the moonlight, which required next-generation embellishment courtesy of cutting edge visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic. ILM was tasked with replacing parts of actors or the actors completely—even more impressive was the fact that this was largely accomplished without motion capture technology. (Depp did a bit of performance capture for the bit at the end when he turns into a skeleton.) Instead of cameras being locked off and immobile, a trope of visual effects-heavy films, director Gore Verbinski was allowed to move the camera freely. The result is a film that feels as gritty as some of its pirate characters, instead of feeling too slick or overtly manicured. It’s easy to overlook, but it can’t be overstated just how innovative this approach really was.
Like we said: it’s easy to take for granted all the ways that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl broke ground. But in its own subtle ways, it remains one of the most innovative blockbusters of this generation. And it’s been a pirate’s life for us ever since.