From Elves to X-Men: It’s Been 20 Years Since These Films Were Released

Although it’s hard to believe, 2003 was 20 years ago. A simpler time, when the internet was still growing up, there was only one version of Spider-Man and no one had yet said the words “cinematic universe”. Looking back, it was an incredible year for cinema, with many big franchises getting their start, either the first film or an ambitious sequel that proved they weren’t a one-hit wonder.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Credit: Disney, 2003

It’s hard to imagine now, but the first entry wasn’t a guaranteed smash hit. Theme park rides don’t have a great reputation for successful films. At one point considered as a direct-to-video release, with everyone from Cary Elwes to Christopher Walken considered for the now iconic role of Captain Jack Sparrow. Originally written for Hugh Jackman, the role went to Johnny Depp, who has become synonymous with the role and a household name. Although critics expected it to be a flop, it went on to become the fourth highest-grossing film of the year, launching countless impressions and parodies and four sequels. Also, it gave us this iconic theme.

X2: X-Men United

Credit: 20th Century Fox, Marvel, 2003

Put into production a few months after the success of the first film, the second film is more ambitious in every way. Introducing new characters, like Nightcrawler, who features in the action-packed opening, and featuring a much more ambitious story, it had the top spot at the box office for two weeks. Coming before the superhero domination of the box office, X2 went a long way to ensuring the genre’s success, as well as renewing interest in the comics.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Credit: Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, 2003

Concluding the trilogy that first hit theatres in 2001, the final entry in the series had immense hype surrounding it, leading it to become the second film ever to reach $1 billion at the box office (behind Titanic). It won a whopping eleven Oscars (the highest total, an honour it shares with Titanic and Ben-Hur), for every category it was nominated for, including Best Picture. To this day, it is held up as one of the best films ever, and the trilogy itself is often spoken about with the same reverence as Star Wars. It spawned a prequel trilogy a decade later, adapting The Hobbit, putting the Wētā Workshop on the industry map, and has had a massive effect on the New Zealand tourism industry.

Memories of Murder

Credit: Sidus Pictures, NEON, 2003/2020

The second film from now Oscar-winning Korean director Bong-Joon Ho is based on several real murders that occurred during the late 1980s. Its limited release meant it was a cult film outside of Korea for a long time, but in its home country was so successful it saved its production company from bankruptcy. Amongst its many fans are Quentin Tarantino who declared it, along with Bong’s next film The Host, one of his favourites since 1992. At the time of release, the murders the film was based on remained unsolved, meaning it is entirely possible that the real-life murderer has seen it…


Credit: Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, 2003

Despite the script being written in 1993, it took another ten years before the film would hit cinemas. Eventually landing Will Ferrell, fresh off Saturday Night Live, to star and Jon Favreau, probably best known for Swingers and a few episodes of Friends, to direct. Against a measly $33 million budget, it earned $220 million at the box office. Ferrell’s film career was off to a great start and the film regularly tops or places highly in “Best Christmas Movies” lists. Favreau is doing pretty well for himself too, having directed Iron Man (giving himself a recurring role in the MCU in the process), adaptations of The Jungle Book and The Lion King as well as show running The Mandalorian.

2 Fast 2 Furious

Credit: Universal, 2003

The early entries in the franchise are a strange time capsule, compared to the monstrous hits they’d become. The sequel’s move to Miami and buddy cop story was a departure from the original, but in retrospect, is the beginning of what it would become. Introducing Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris to the franchise, as well as showing how malleable the series could be. It laid the groundwork for a long-running franchise, even if reviews were disappointing.

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