'Pirates of the Caribbean' Flashback: Remember How Critics Raved About Johnny Depp's Captain Jack?

Nick Schager
Writer
Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (Photo: Walt Disney/courtesy Everett Collection)

Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow sashays back into the spotlight this Memorial Day weekend in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth installment in the highly lucrative Disney franchise. While tracking continues to indicate that the film will win the holiday box-office, critics’ notices have been far from kind, with particular emphasis being paid to Depp’s character, whose flamboyance seems to have faded into schtick. As The Village Voice critic Alan Scherstuhl writes, “Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow [is] a character who at this point makes more sense in a Party City clearance aisle than on a multiplex screen.”

Yet it wasn’t always that way. When the first movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, debuted in 2003, it was met with enthusiasm in large part because of the electric eccentricity of Depp’s portrayal of a rum-loving pirate, whose outsized mannerisms, cartoon comportment and dogged insouciance was a burst of energy in a moribund genre. (His performance was such a phenomenon, Depp even went on to earn a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.) Read on for the raves:

Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times
“The movie belongs to Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow the pirate, a rapscallion who’s as woozy as someone who has endured much too much time on a roller coaster. Mr. Depp doesn’t get the opportunity to display his gift for comedy often, and his mellow, dizzied underplaying here is a balm, an antidote to the raucous battles and swashbuckling.

Gargling his consonants before spitting them out, Mr. Depp’s pirate suggests a man who has spent either a great deal of time with Keith Richards after a tour of the Rebel Yell factory, or a man who has spent a great deal of time watching Mike Myers do his Keith Richards impression. Either way, festooned with dreadlocks and braids in his hair and beard, and wearing enough industrial-strength mascara to indicate that Captain Jack was probably influenced by another King of the Wild Frontier — Adam Ant — Mr. Depp offers a ratty, bedeviled turn that keeps the picture in motion during that extended period when there’s not much plot involved.”

David Ansen, Newsweek
“As Johnny Depp plays him, with Cockney accent, kohl-blackened eyes and a prancing brio that wouldn’t be out of place in a Christopher Street parade, he’s by far the best reason to see Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Depp gave us a glimpse of his comic finesse in the 1995 Don Juan DeMarco, and here — in a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced high-seas adventure that incorporates roaring cannons, oddball comedy, a love story and more than a touch of the supernatural — Depp unleashes his theatrical bravado. He’s hilarious… Fortunately, whenever the movie starts to sag, Depp flies to the rescue. It’s a truly piratical performance: with his flamboyantly fluttering fingers he steals every scene in the movie.”

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“Depp in particular seems to be channeling a drunken drag queen, with his eyeliner and the way he minces ashore and slurs his dialogue ever so insouciantly. Don’t mistake me: This is not a criticism, but admiration for his work. It can be said that his performance is original in its every atom. There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie. There’s some talk about how he got too much sun while he was stranded on that island, but his behavior shows a lifetime of rehearsal. He is a peacock in full display.

Consider how boring it would have been if Depp had played the role straight, as an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks (Sr. or Jr.) might have. To take this material seriously would make it unbearable. Capt. Sparrow’s behavior is so rococo that other members of the cast actually comment on it. And yet because it is consistent and because you can never catch Depp making fun of the character, it rises to a kind of cockamamie sincerity.”

Todd McCarthy, Variety
“Elaborately decked out with a bandana, raccoon-like black eye makeup, dreadlocks, two beard braids and lousy teeth (there’s a screen credit “dental special effects for Johnny Depp”), the magnetic star cuts an unusual figure magnified in oddness by the eccentric layerings he gives to Jack Sparrow.

Frequently slurring his words but usually intelligible (Depp also had two specially credited sound technicians), the actor makes his character convincingly half-daft, with fey mannerisms that raise even more interesting questions. Although there is no specific referencing, Depp’s turn here nonetheless puts one in mind of some of Marlon Brando’s more oddball screen outings, which often ended up being the most interesting elements in those pictures even if they weren’t particularly coherent or even plausible.”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
“Johnny Depp…whose eccentric and intelligent comic presence raises this movie’s game — and further contributes to his reputation as an actor who can boost left-field projects or make mainstream projects look left-field. He looks and sounds very, very odd indeed, seeming like a straggly-haired New Ager with an out-of-control goatee that has developed various etiolated strands down his front. He has a quavering, affected English accent, which Depp perhaps imagines to be that of a cheeky cockney.”

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