Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Review by Sombrero Grande

In my Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe review I wrote about how desperate Disney is for a new film franchise these days. I don’t think any audience went into the original Pirates of the Caribbean film with high hopes; after all, it came on the heels of the dismal Country Bears movie and at a time when Disney was still known for fumbling its live action efforts and brazenly rehashing its treasures from the past for a quick, crappy remake and short-term gains. However, when Curse of the Black Pearl turned out to be quite a good flick and really struck a chord with moviegoers, Disney realized this was a potential cash cow that was ready to be milked. I mean, here’s a film that single-handedly made pirates cool in popular culture again. Thus, we get Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the first of at least two sequels to the original home run of a film.

However, in their rush to build this new golden franchise, Disney apparently ran out of ideas. The story is very similar to the first movie in that another ruthless and supernatural pirate crew (in an even creepier boat than the Black Pearl) with ties to Captain Jack Sparrow pursues our heroes around the Caribbean while the British (here narrowed to the just plain evil East India Trading Company) make things generally difficult as well. Instead of seeing Sparrow’s motley crew take on supernatural skeleton pirates, here they’re supernatural sea monster pirates, which, I have to admit, isn’t ultimately as fun as it sounds. And when all this sea monster business doesn’t end up filling as much of the movie as the filmmakers hoped, they pad an early segment of the story by borrowing some headhunters, seemingly from the nearby Jungle Cruise ride, for a lengthy and needless bit of filler.

I think the main flaw in Dead Man’s Chest is that all the sea monster and cannibal island business just doesn’t feel all that “piratey.” In my Superman Returns review I complained that I didn’t remember seeing an American flag anywhere in the film; here, I don’t recall ever seeing a single skull-and-crossbones pirate flag. It’s as though all the “pirate” stuff was muted in a story that just comes across as generally supernaturally nautical instead.

But I think the biggest issue audiences will have with the film is how it ends. In trying to build Pirates of the Caribbean into a franchise, Disney apparently looked to emulate one of the biggest film franchises of all time, Star Wars, to structure how the following movies in the trilogy would be constructed. That is to say, there is much about the ending of Dead Man’s Chest that appears similar to The Empire Strikes Back in that it ends in a cliffhanger and on a “downer” as well. Remember how at the end of Empire Luke’s hand was cut off by Vader, Lando had betrayed everyone, C-3PO was in pieces, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite and we wouldn’t even learn if Solo survived until the next film? As long as you go into Dead Man’s Chest expecting something along those lines, you shouldn’t be as shaken/upset as some of the people at the screening I saw were.

The tone of the film is all over the place. It’s really a horror/comedy/adventure story that at times focuses on the different aspects of those genres. The cannibal island escape borders on the cartoonish to such a degree that you’ll swear physics took a vacation to allow for crazy sight gags as if Johnny Depp had Goofy playing his stunt double. In the horror department, there’s considerably much more blood, “jump out and say, ‘boo,’” scares, and light gore than the first movie. Early on you’ll see a crow tear a screaming prisoner’s eye out of its socket as almost a warning to audiences that Disney isn’t going to be aiming this franchise at little kids.

But I don’t mean to just beat down this film. There are some very good elements to Dead Man’s Chest, and overall it’s a great summer popcorn movie. Davy Jones makes for an excellent and mesmerizing villain. Jones’ crew of sea monster pirates look amazing and their designs show creativity to spare (I’ll certainly be getting all of their action figures). Depp’s return as Captain Jack Sparrow marks the first time the actor’s ever played the same character in two movies, and his exceptionally fun pirate persona is just as energetic and enjoyable this second time around. The introduction of Bootstrap Bill Turner makes for some great scenes with Orlando Bloom’s otherwise bland Will Turner character. The film’s signature action sequence, a three-way sword fight in and on a runaway mill wheel, is almost worth the price of admission alone.

While Dead Man’s Chest is a fun popcorn movie, its sails aren’t nearly as full as those of the Black Pearl. What frustrates me most about it is that Dead Man’s Chest doesn’t come across so much as a movie in its own right, or even as a half a movie (to be paired with the yet-unnamed Pirates of the Caribbean 3), but mostly as the springboard of a carefully calculated new franchise. Curse of the Black Pearl can stand on its own as an incredibly fun piece of escapist entertainment, but Dead Man’s Chest introduces so many new characters and plot lines to the film’s universe it feels more like the pilot episode of an ongoing serial. And while I know that’s exactly what Disney wants to do with its Pirates of the Caribbean movies from here on out, I do feel a little taken advantage of now that I’ll have to wait a year and then pay another $10 to find out what happens next in the now ongoing story.


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