Courted by a stuffy commodore, a beautiful girl secretly pines for a humble blacksmith, who is equally smitten with her. A ghostly galleon full of "undead" pirates pays a visit in search of a gold doubloon needed to reverse a curse. And the flamboyant, bejeweled, displaced Capt. Jack Sparrow, a former member of the buccaneers’ crew, blows into port to steal a ship ("commandeering," he argues, or "borrowing without permission").
Sparrow's mission gets blown off course by the governor’s reckless daughter, Elizabeth Swann, when he’s called upon to rescue the damsel from her kidnappers—the dastardly crew of the most dreaded ship on the high seas, the Black Pearl. Our unlikely hero is the only one who knows where the ghost ship is berthed, having captained it before his former first lieutenant Barbossa staged a mutiny and left Sparrow to die on a deserted island. Sparrow is aided by young Will Turner, the blacksmith apprentice who’s loved Elizabeth since his youth, and the highly motivated duo are determined to let nothing stop them from reclaiming their treasures ... even when they find out that their adversaries can’t be killed because they’re already dead, placed under a terrible curse by pagan gods for their insatiable greed.
The pirate “code of parlez” (French for “speak”) gives otherwise merciless pirates the opportunity to show grace to their captives. Elizabeth first invokes it when she’s captured by leering, jeering riff-raff fresh off the Black Pearl and is given an audience with its captain (going from the proverbial frying pan into the fire).
Although a bit sappy and doting, Gov. Swann is obviously a loving, caring (and inexplicably single) dad who places his daughter’s happiness high on the priority scale.
When asked by Sparrow how far he’s willing to go to save the kidnapped Elizabeth, Turner unhesitatingly replies, “I’d die for her.” He proves himself a man of his word as he repeatedly puts his life on the line for the woman he loves.
A great deal of superstitious fear surrounds the Black Pearl, described by one sailor in hushed whispers as, “a ship with black sails, crewed by the damned and captained by a man so evil hell itself spit him back out.” Except, in the context of the story, it’s not superstition. Captain Barbossa tells the captive Elizabeth about how angry heathen gods hexed a stolen chest of Aztec gold: Any mortal that removed more than a single piece would be punished for eternity. He and his greedy crew have brought the curse down on themselves by spending all the coins but one, and now are imprisoned in the realm of the undead until every coin is returned to the chest and blood from a certain pirate’s line is spilt upon it.
Christian families looking for modern-day parables will find a parallel between the pagan gods’ requirement of blood to lift the curse of the Black Pearl to God’s requirement for His own Son’s blood sacrifice to lift the curse of sin and death from mankind. But these waters get muddy pretty quickly, and that lesson is mostly obscured by the symbols of evil that surround it.
There’s a whole lot of skirt-chasing going on at the pirates' hideout. Pirates cavort with busty ladies, prompting Sparrow to remark, “If every town in the world were like this one, no man would ever feel unwanted.” A rum-sodden sailor, though, doesn’t even notice when a woman repeatedly lifts her skirts behind his head. A romantically unattached man is asked if he’s a eunuch. Barbossa speaks of frittering treasure away on women, and the curse that’s left him and his men with lust so strong that “all the pleasurable company in the world cannot slake it.” He later longs for the “warmth of a woman’s flesh.”
Both society women and pirate playthings reveal lots of cleavage common to that period’s apparel. Elizabeth is forced to remove her dress (revealing modest undergarments) in front of the pirate crew. A woman is rescued from drowning by a pirate who rips her dress and corset off to allow her to breathe, but the scene is more sensational than sexual. Elizabeth pulls Turner’s hand to her breast before placing it on his medallion that she’s been wearing around her neck.
The movie is quite violent with a large body count, though there’s not a lot of blood. Much of the mayhem involves undead pirates who turn skeletal in the moonlight. People get shot at close range and run through with swords. There are hangings and a few slit throats. A pirate gets showered with glowing embers from a bed-warming pan. Another gets hit in the belly by a cannon ball. Yet another pulls out his wooden eye by the flying fork that’s pierced it. Ships fire cannons at each other and at a coastal town. Buildings and ships are seen burning.
Sparrow and Turner engage in a sword fight (no one gets hurt). Sparrow takes it in stride when his face gets slapped by two women scorned and another whose ship he stole. He holds a woman at gunpoint to make an escape. Both Elizabeth and Will, at separate times, are threatened with knives held to their throats. Three skeletons hang under the sign “Pirates Ye Beware” at a cove entrance.
Perhaps the most egregious violence is Barbossa’s rough treatment of Elizabeth. He slaps her unconscious when she won’t answer his question, and makes her walk the plank. In turn, she shoots him and stabs him in the chest, but no harm’s done since he’s undead.
A pirate explains the custom of offering a marooned pirate a gun with a single bullet: “That won’t be much good for huntin’ or to be rescued. After three weeks of starvin’ and thirst, that pistol starts to look real friendly,” then demonstrates by holding fingers to his temple.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Pirates engage in typical rum swilling. Marooned with Elizabeth, Sparrow unearths a cache of rum and drinks lavishly; Elizabeth dupes him into thinking she’s matching him drink for drink until he passes out. She also rebuffs his flirtations by telling him they “haven’t drank enough yet for that kind of talk.” Elizabeth accepts a glass of wine from Barbossa. A drunken man is seen passed out from his boozing.
Other Negative Elements
When Elizabeth refuses to don a gown of Barbossa’s choice and dine with him, he threatens to make her eat dinner with the crew ... naked. (She hastily acquiesces and puts on the contested dress.)
Unlike “parlez,” another pirate code is much less gentlemanly, calling for them to abandon crewmates who fall behind in battle.
Sparrow, Will and Elizabeth make liberal use of situation ethics: the end justifies the often questionable and downright unacceptable means. When all is said and done, crime goes unpunished and the main characters sail off into the sunset (some literally; others figuratively).
Movies once inspired theme-park rides. Now it’s the other way around. (Haunted Mansion, anyone?) What's remarkable is that Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl actually delivers the thrills, laughs and romance audiences want while they're gobbling up popcorn. It's not just a lazy attempt to capitalize on a brand name.
Portrayed with rock star swagger, Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow is a likable scoundrel who looks like the offspring of Errol Flynn and Joan Jett ... in fact, this role has earned Depp near-rock star status with teens. All the more reason for families to be wary of the film’s mixed messages.
Overshadowing the onscreen heroism and fun are disappointing closing remarks romanticizing—even legitimizing—piracy. (That's especially significant considering the fact that modern-day merchant marines are still victimized by sea robbers, but possibly more so because of the way those who steal songs and movies on the great ocean known as the World Wide Web have been so identified with the peg-legged seafarers of old.) That, and the film's creepy, prolonged violence should make families think twice before setting sail for this high-seas adventure.