20 years ago today, Disney's riskiest blockbuster really paid off 7 months ago

20 years ago today, Disney's riskiest blockbuster really paid off

Everything about this movie should not have worked.

In July 2002, a movie arrived in cinemas, by the name of The Country Bears. It was based on a much-loved Disney theme park attraction, and it featured Christopher Walken and Haley Joel Osmond.

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Upon release, the movie flopped so hard critically and commercially, that the head of Disney tried to pull the plug on what would become their biggest movie of 2003.

You see, The Country Bears was the third ever movie to be made that was based on a theme park attraction. The previous two were 2000's Mission To Mars (another famously bad flop) and 1997's Tower Of Terror, which has the following description: "As of 2023, the film is not available on any streaming service or aired on any television channels for unknown reasons." We're guessing whatever the reasons are, they aren't positive.

So movies based on theme park rides were proven to not work. And around the same time, you know what else was proven to not work? Pirate movies.

1995's pirate action movie Cutthroat Island was at one time listed by the Guinness World Records as the biggest flop ever, although that has since been surpassed by another risky Disney movie.

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Disney had a pirate movie based on a theme park ride, with a whopping $140 million production budget, fronted by an actor whose previous biggest box office hit was a relatively minor horror movie. So they panicked, and three months before they started filming Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, they tried to cancel it.

The original Pirates of the Caribbean cast was ... interesting

In its initial incarnation, it was a pirate movie with no supernatural element, with the idea to have Matthew McConaughey cast as Jack Sparrow, or failing him, Christopher Walken (?!), with the film planned to go direct-to-video.

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With a number of different scripts provided by the writers of Collateral, 30 Days of Night, Aladdin, Shrek and The Mask Of Zorro, eventually the supernatural element was added in, and Gore Verbinski signed as director, hot from the success of his family movie Mouse Hunt.

With a bigger production budget now set in place, Disney offered the role of Jack Sparrow to Jim Carrey, but he had to turn it down because there was a scheduling clash with Bruce Almighty (which went on to become the 5th biggest box office hit of 2003). Michael Keaton was also considered for the role, as was Hugh Jackman, before they landed on Johnny Depp.

The rest of the cast also started to fill out, including Geoffrey Rush as the villainous Captain Barbossa (originally offered to Robert De Niro), Orlando Bloom as Will Turner (Tom Hiddleston auditioned for the role, both Christian Bale and Heath Ledger were considered for the part), and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann (who massively impressed Verbinski in the audition, as he had never heard of her before).

Three months after the disastrous launch of The Country Bears, production began on the movie on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in October 2002. Aside from one huge set fire that caused over $500,000 worth of damage but zero injuries, things went off without a hitch... obviously except for Disney's absolute confusion at Johnny Depp's performance decisions. Which, in hindsight, we all know worked out great for everyone.

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Upon release in cinemas on 9 July 2003, everyone was expecting a big flop. Instead, the movie went on to make over $654 million worldwide, becoming the fourth biggest box office hit of the year, behind only The Return of the King, Finding Nemo and The Matrix Reloaded.

It was even nominated for five Oscars, including a Best Actor nomination for Depp, and resulted in four Pirates of the Caribbean sequels with a combined box office of over $4.5 billion worldwide.

So, despite everything, the risk really paid off for Disney. And in an age where Disney rarely make a big budget production for anything that isn't Marvel or Star Wars, that kind of risk would be massively welcomed by audiences. All they ask is that the movie itself be actually, y'know, good.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is available to watch on Disney+ right now, along with all four of the sequels in the series.

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