Still the best Pirates sequel? Oscar opens up Davy Jones’ locker to give it another look.
Who made it?: Gore Verbinski (Director), Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio (Writers), Jerry Bruckheimer (Producer), Walt Disney Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgård, Tom Hollander.
Tagline: “Captain Jack is back.”
IMDb rating: 7.3/10.
For a time, I actually found myself watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest more than The Curse of the Black Pearl. Of all the sequels, this is one made mostly from parts I would want to actually see in a pirate movie, but it is still a flawed film. The decision to shoot this and At World’s End back-to-back results in a mix of really fun action and adventure, along with heavily drawn-out and confusing plot threads and other annoyances. Though, for my part, this is the more re-watchable of the two.
On the day of their wedding, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are arrested by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Company for allowing Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to escape his hanging. Beckett promises to spare both of them from execution if Will tracks down Jack and brings him the pirate’s magic compass, but does not reveal why. On the Black Pearl, Jack reunites with Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), now bound to crew the Flying Dutchman, captained by Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whom Jack made a deal with to raise the Pearl from the depths. Jack must serve Jones for a hundred years or be dragged to Davy Jones’ Locker by the Kraken. Naturally, Jack flees to the safety of land.
Will eventually finds Jack’s crew on an island ruled by cannibals who worship Jack as a god, from which they escape (after twenty minutes). Back at Port Royal, Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) tries to send Elizabeth back to England, but is captured and Elizabeth escapes and stows away aboard a Scottish merchant vessel. The pirates meet voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), who tells them how Davy Jones carved out his own heart and locked it within the Dead Man’s Chest, and the key to the chest is in his possession. Locating the Dutchman, Will is press-ganged into Jones’ service, reuniting with his father, while Jones sends Jack to bring him one-hundred souls so his blood debt can be paid.
Depp is still dependable when delivering on the familiar Sparrowisms, even if his character is much more driven by desperation than the previous film; there’s something about him that doesn’t strike the right balance of charming scoundrel and greedy pirate that made him so likable before. Bloom and Knightley both turn out good performances considering the material they have to work with. Nighy captures the cruelty and tragic undertones of Jones, throwing in a few amusing verbal and facial tics that don’t detract from his intimidating presence. Hollander is excellent casting as Beckett – a cold, calculating, almost emotionless reptile of a man. While Skarsgård doesn’t exactly resemble Bloom (as was the case in the previous film), his performance as a heartbroken father who wants his son to stay out of Jones’ grasp is incredible, and his scenes with Bloom are some of the more heartfelt bits in the movie. Harris is quite the eccentric creature as Dalma, giving a legitimately unsettling and mystical air. Kevin McNally is always fun to see play Mr. Gibbs even for purposes of exposition, Pryce has more of a tragic role to play than comic relief, and Jack Davenport returns as a more desperate and vengeful James Norrington. Lee Arenberg and MacKenzie Crook are also back and have their humorous moments as well. David Schofeld as Mr. Mercer, Beckett’s henchman, is a particularly chilling and nasty side villain.
Right off the bat, the film gives us such a great impression of the tone and the new enemies in Beckett and his vast forces arriving in the rain, hooking the audience quickly. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is slightly darker than the previous film, but still visually interesting and colourful, feeling like a logical progression of the series. The atmosphere in locations like The Flying Dutchman and Dalma’s house show a lot of detail and personality, and are so tangible that they practically leap off the screen. It can truly be said that the production design across this franchise is impressive, with excellent makeup on sailors and normal pirates alike, but the design of the Dutchman, which is at one with the sea and a combination of driftwood and seaweed, is an inspired choice.
This is certainly more CGI-heavy than the previous film, and the majority of it holds up pretty well. It’s almost an hour until we see Jones, but it’s worth it. As far as rendered humanoid characters go, Davy is a personal favourite of mine; the detail and fidelity to physics is commendable. Taking advantage of the dark nighttime settings, he looks awesome. Even when we do see Jones in the full daylight, he looks like he really is there. His motion-capture performance is another standout demonstration of the art form. The makeup on Bootstrap is excellent, and throughout the film, it gets progressively more “aquatic” and covered in marine life. The design of the Flying Dutchman crew, based on creations by Jurassic Park concept artist Crash McCreery, show a lot more of a monstrous quality than the skeleton pirates in the first film. One of them, a sailor who has become part of the ship, still looks as good as real! Dead Man’s Chest also has the definitive movie Kraken – its appearances are rendered to a high standard, with each of the tentacles moving about with sinister, animal-like creepiness. This is another example of Verbinski’s Harryhausen fanboyism showing. We never even see the creature in full, but the tension is amped up as the desperate pirates try to repel the monster, and in the end, it’s proven to be nigh invincible.
Despite the film’s length and pacing issues, there are a lot of fun and creative sequences in the island moments, from the bone cage swinging to Jack’s elaborate escape from being roasted on a spit. It’s vaguely similar to a cannibal island sequence in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, if on a bigger scale. Although questionable in conception, Jack, Will and Norrington duelling from the beaches to a ruined church to a spinning water wheel are well-staged action beats, and the wheel part in particular is very original.
Hans Zimmer takes over the composing and production of the film’s score from Badlet, and it’s much stronger for it! Familiar themes have more boom to them, sounding less electronically-created and more orchestral. New pieces like Jack’s updated theme with all its drunken insanity and Jones’ brooding and ominous cue are memorable, with solid use of tribal drums and flutes for the cannibal island scenes. Zimmer’s cover for the sailor’s shanty “Two Hornpipes” really makes the Tortuga bar fight come alive!
If the first movie had a complicated plot, then this one went overboard with it, constantly escalating the danger, stakes and complications. The comedy is, alas, more hit and miss, with plenty of legitimately funny lines (especially from a crew of superstitious sailors) but a few that don’t gel with the rest of the scene, or come off as overly obvious call-backs to the previous film. It gets pretty leery and unpleasant in places. Yes, the first film pushed the envelope for a Disney film, but they really do push their luck here a few too many times. In terms of truly messed up scenes, you have human bone cages and toenail necklaces on the cannibal island, and watching Bootstrap whip his son (to spare him the pain of a harder lashing) is bloody tough to watch.
What really does undo the film is its pacing. We spend so much time during scenes with Jack that, when we do return to Will and Elizabeth, their scenes almost feel incidental. They try to add more drama by making a love-triangle of sorts between Jack, Will and Elizabeth, and it almost ruins the romance in the previous film. The scenes with the aforementioned cannibals contribute nothing to the main plot and could have easily been cut from the film, and the pacing would be better for it. This is also where the “shifting allegiance syndrome” kicks in when Jack, Will and Norrington have their face-off against each other, and every reasonable motivation just seems to recede for the sake of action.
Despite starting with Will and Elizabeth, this is certainly more Jack’s movie. Part of why it works better than its successors is that Sparrow never finds time to be content, going from bad situation to bad situation and allowing us to see him challenged at every turn. If there is a thematic conceit to making Jack the main character, it’s that he is ultimately capable of being a good man. He is shown to be a pretty bad friend but not one without regrets, as evidenced by him going back and forth between making choices out of his own personal survival and the survival of his friends. Even when he’s bound to the Pearl and desperately tries to escape, his final moment is one of willing sacrifice and going down with the ship.
While not as immediately interesting as Jones or Barbossa, Becket’s villainy is something we’ve seen across real-life history: the greedy and corrupt business official with power and ambition greater than any pirate’s love of gold. If Barbossa’s crew represented the extreme example of what pirates could be, then Becket and his forces represent the extreme example of abusing the law for one’s own ends. The film leaves visual clues connecting Tia Dalma to Davy Jones, as well as linking Will to Jones and foreshadowing events that transpire in the third film. The parallel between Will and Elizabeth with Jones and his lost love casts an interesting if ultimately tragic take on the once-straightforward romantic duo of the prior film. The crab-shaped music box also serves as a visual link between Jones and Dalma, providing some retroactive setup for the sea goddess Calypso in the next film.
Overall, while I can’t say it’s a good film throughout, Dead Man’s Chest is probably the one Pirates sequel I have the strongest appreciation for and the one that comes the closest to being a great movie. Had certain scenes been omitted and the script more streamlined, or simply making it a standalone adventure, I can imagine it being better-received. But what we have is a film that exists to be the first in a massive two-part mega sequel, and at that point, audiences have to choose between staying the course or simply jumping ship.
The Kraken is unleashed…
- The scene when Jack Sparrow calls the Flying Dutchman “fishmates”, and sings to them “I got a jar of dirt”, was unscripted and improvised by Johnny Depp. Most of the reactions of the rest of the characters are real.
- Depp’s frequent collaborator, Tim Burton, contributed some of the conceptual designs of several crew members aboard the Flying Dutchman.
- The film is banned in China for its depiction of cannibalism, an integral part to the movie’s storyline.
- Rolling Stone Keith Richards was set to make a cameo appearance as the father of Captain Jack Sparrow, but Richards had to pull out of the project due to his commitment with The Rolling Stones world tour. He would later make a cameo appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).