When it came out three years ago, Pirates of the Caribbean was a sleeper hit, a surprisingly entertaining adventure film based on a theme park ride. And there was a time when that, as they say, would have been that. But in today’s Hollywood, Pirates went from being the equivalent of one of those rum-soaked Jolly Roger tourist boats to a money-making dreadnought, balanced carefully on Johnny Depp’s memorable performance as Captain Jack Sparrow.
A sequel was inevitable. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (DMC), which came out Friday, is the highly anticipated follow up to the original film. The reviews have been decidedly mixed, though the moviegoing public ignored them to crown DMC the new box-office champ.
Unfortunately, DMC seems to suffer from the same problems as, say, The Matrix Reloaded. Both are follow-ups to sleeper hits; both were the first of two sequels filmed back-to-back; and with both films, it’s clear the filmmakers didn’t really have a plan for a sequel when they made the first film and were unsure of where to go in the sequels—other than bigger, longer, louder, and more convoluted. DMC is a movie that is very much aware of its newfound status as a franchise.
The original Pirates sailed on the charm on Depp’s Jack Sparrow, one of the most utterly feckless protagonists to grace a big-budget film in a long time. But the film was also odd in that, ostensibly, the real hero was Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). Bloom was supposed to be Errol Flynn; Depp’s Sparrow was a secondary character who managed to not just steal the film, but to take it over. It was just as well—Depp was the better actor and Sparrow the better character. But the end result, while entertaining, felt a bit uneven.
That unevenness is very much evident in DMC, which has at least two main plots and half a dozen subplots. Like its predecessor, it’s too long. Like many recent blockbusters (such as Titanic, the Lord of the Rings films and King Kong) watching DMC sometimes feels like work, as action sequences drag on for twenty minutes and filmmakers seem to be working to cram stuff in, despite having two-and-a-half hours to work with.
The plot, when trimmed of all the subplots, boils down to two main threads: Will Turner and his fiancée, Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) are arrested by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) for aiding Sparrow’s escape in the first film. Beckett cuts a deal with Will: get Sparrow’s magic compass and he and Elizabeth can go free. Meanwhile, Sparrow, it seems, long ago cut a deal with the squid-faced Davy Jones (a heavily-CGI’ed Bill Nighy) for Sparrow’s magical ship, The Black Pearl, but now Jones has called in the debt: 300 years of service as a freakish sea creature aboard Jones’s ship, The Flying Dutchman.
That’s just the set-up. A lot more goes on, much of it involving a chest and some of it involving an unrealistic love triangle between Will, Elizabeth and Sparrow. To the filmmaker’s credit, they don’t soften Sparrow: he’s still completely selfish and unreliable, yet oddly charming. But Depp, as good as his Sparrow is, can’t singlehandedly float a film of this magnitude, and it eventually founders under its own weight.
But there are definitely some things to admire: Nighy’s eccentric performance as Jones, who speaks with an odd lisp and mincing, high-pitched tone, like a molluscous version of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion. Then there’s Naomie Harris’s rather mesmerizing voodoo lady, Tia Dalma, whose accent and speech are such that you’re always figuring out what she said just after she finishes the sentence. (Incidentally, the introduction of the voodoo lady cemented my belief that the filmmakers are at least familiar with the Monkey Island games.) And the action sequences, while overly long, are indeed spectacular.
What we have, then, is a very large-scale B-movie. In employing a production philosophy of “more is better”—more plot, more characters, more stunts—Verbinski & company have squeezed out most of the charm of the first film, leaving with us with a lot of impressive visuals and a general sense of exhaustion at the end of the film.
However, there’s a surprise at the end of the film that does raise my hopes for the third one, due out next summer.