Freeform’s 30 Days of Disney scheduling block continues today with the launch of “Pirates Week,” and the first of Disney’s five live-action Pirates of the Caribbean movies– though Freeform is only airing the first four.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003 and represented a bold experiment on Disney’s part– could the company create a successful blockbuster theatrical film based on one of its beloved theme park attractions? The concept hadn’t worked too well for Mission to Mars (2000) or The Country Bears (2002) before it, but thankfully then-CEO Michael Eisner knew there was potential in the franchise under producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon) and director Gore Verbinski (MouseHunt).

The film did succeed, of course, and it went on to generate four big-budget sequels, not to mention permanent changes to the original theme park attractions that inspired it. But what was it about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl that resonated with audiences in the way other attraction-based movies (before or after) couldn’t?

Firstly, the creative minds behind the project were smart enough to assemble an all-around winning cast of characters, from the charmingly conniving Captain Jack Sparrow played by Johnny Depp (Ed Wood) doing his best Keith Richards impression, to Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) as the adventurous Governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann, to Orlando Bloom (Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) as the swashbuckling blacksmith Will Turner.

Even prestigious actors Geoffrey Rush (Shine) and Jonathan Pryce (Something Wicked This Way Comes) show up in meaty roles as the ghost-pirate Captain Barbossa and Governor Swann, respectively. And the remainder of the cast is populated by recognizably appealing character actors such as Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as Commodore Norrington, Mackenzie Cook (BBC’s The Office) as Ragetti, and a few brief glimpses of Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar, Star Trek) in her future element as an action star.

Secondly, early on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl takes the wise path toward being a stand-alone movie in its own right before overly committing to function as a theme-park ride adaptation. Sure, there are scattered references to the classic 1967 Disneyland attraction here and there– we hear that famous “Yo Ho, Yo Ho” song a few times, there’s that dog with the keys to the prison cells– but beyond a handful of wink-wink nods and a general pleasurably anarchic atmosphere, Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (who previously collaborated on Aladdin and Shrek) prudently let the film be its own thing.

Lastly, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is simply well-executed as a fun genre mash-up between action, adventure, romance, comedy, and fantasy– not to mention good old-fashioned piracy. At a runtime of two hours and 23 minutes, it does feel a tiny bit bloated, but I that’s likely Bruckheimer’s kitchen-sink influence winning out over cooler, more efficient filmmaking heads, and the story has enough momentum to keep the energy going throughout regardless.

It will be interesting to see if Disney can recapture this with future efforts to bring its theme parks into movie theaters. While The Haunted Mansion (2003) and Tomorrowland (2015) were both busts in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean, next year’s Jungle Cruise starring Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt has shown promise, especially in the footage that debuted at last month’s D23 Expo. Will that film launch household-name characters, billions of dollars in revenue, and a five-installment franchise of its own for Disney? Only time will tell.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl airs tonight at 8:00 PM on Freeform as part of the basic cable network’s month-long 30 Days of Disney programming block, running from now through the end of September.

 

Mike has been fascinated by theme parks and Disney all his life. He has worked in the entertainment journalism field since 2015, after spending a decade as a film projectionist at one of Hollywood’s most prestigious movie theaters. He resides in Burbank, California with his wife and cat.

 

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