When Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl opened on July 9th, 2003, most in Hollywood were expecting the biggest bomb of the summer. A pirate movie (long box office poison), starring a leading man more used to smaller films and based on a theme park ride to boot? This never should have worked, but instead the movie became one of the biggest hits of the year, elevating Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley to stardom and Geoffrey Rush fun as Barbossa.
Of course, the true reason it all worked was Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. Critics raved on his one-of-a-kind performance that earned Depp an Oscar nomination and boosted him to A-list stardom. Disney would also integrate Jack and other parts of the ride to the Pirates attractions around the globe.
Since then, four more Pirates movies have followed, with buzz about a sixth still around. Not all were as good as the first, of course, but each still has some charms, all anchored by Depp’s role as Jack, the bizarre pirate always managing to win. So for its 20th anniversary, here’s how each movie in the Pirates franchise ranks to marvel once more at how this amazing saga came together.
5. On Stranger Tides
This is easily the worst Pirates movie, as it just seems so pointless. There’s a good opening of Jack in London for a fun chase and looks to be a new direction for Barbossa serving the Crown. But then Penelope Cruz pops up as a pirate with a surprising lack of chemistry with Depp, so you never buy their supposed relationship. Ian McShane as Blackbeard should have been fantastic casting, but he oddly underplays the role when he should have cut loose.
The plot is all over the place with a search for the Fountain of Youth, mermaids, a wedding and boats shrunken into bottles. It just never seems to come together properly and Depp’s performance is more a caricature than the fun Jack fans had come to know and love. There could have been a good movie made out of this story, but this isn’t it.
4. Dead Man’s Chest
The first sequel is fun in the introduction of Davy Jones, as that bizarre squid-like appearance and his undead crew make for a wild sight. It’s also interesting to see Jack actually frightened of the guy and doing anything to avoid him. However, the plotlines of Beckett working his own plans and Will and Elizabeth separated are too distracting.
The lack of Rush as Barbossa is another factor as the film lacks the focus of the first, with side trips like a cannibal island. There’s also how it’s all built to a cliffhanger for the third film rather than a stand-alone sequel. So while it can be good, this is a case of the middle part of a trilogy being its weakest entry.
3. Dead Men Tell No Tales
This may be an odd film, yet in some ways, it truly works as a finale to the saga. It’s interesting to see Jack at the start at his lowest point and giving it up, losing the confidence key to the character. But it does pave the way for Javier Bardem to ham it up as Salazar, whose work with Rush is a delight to watch. The creepy half-dead crew of his is a striking sight to add spark to this entry.
Kaya Scodelario is a treat as a smart woman with a surprising connection to one pirate and the various treasure hunts give Jack a chance to show off (like the thrilling execution escape scene). The finale brings a warm close to one major character’s arc and a proper finale for two more. So if this is the final Pirates movie, at least it went out well to be a good conclusion to the saga.
2. At World’s End
It may be overlong, but the third film did serve as a fine capper to the original trilogy. Chow Yun-Fat is a good presence as a captain and it’s fun to see the various other pirate lords together. The sequence of the multiples Jacks is crazy but there are still good spots like Elizabeth becoming a pirate queen and her rousing speech to battle.
Speaking of which, that final wild fight in a seastorm is an FX standout from Will and Elizabeth’s wedding mid-sword duel to Will’s dark choice. The musical score is glorious, especially the “What shall we die for” scene and it all comes together into a terrific closer. It’s almost a shame the movies had to continue after what could have served as a conclusion to the saga.
1. Curse of the Black Pearl
The original is still the best as a fantastic mix of genres. It starts off as a standard adventure tale before moving into horror with the revelation of the cursed pirates. The action is terrific, but from the moment Jack Sparrow first arrives, something makes this different. Depp’s performance in that first go around is great, showing a flair on Sparrow before it became more cliche and it’s fun to realize this man has almost no idea what he’s doing but manages to pull it off.
It’s backed by the cast, with Bloom, Knightley and Rush all doing equally great work showing their character rising. We see Will go from blacksmith to fighter, Elizabeth breaking free of her social standing and Barbossa desperate to escape his monstrous fate. There are more nods to the original ride here, but it still comes together into the perfect summer blockbuster of thrills, scares and humor. Twenty years later and the first voyage under Captain Jack Sparrow is still a marvelous journey for movie fans.