"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest,
Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum.
Drink and the Devil had done for the rest,
Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum."
Filmmakers learned a long time ago to be careful with sequels. Just ask George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. After the enormous success of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," about a fellow getting into a series of adventures looking for a supernatural relic, they decided to do something completely different. "Temple of Doom" met with public and critical disapproval, so for their third episode they had Indy getting into a series of adventures looking for a supernatural relic.
The powers that be at Disney must have told director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to look for everything that people liked in 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and amplify it tenfold in the 2006 follow-up, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." This means the filmmakers brought back all of the main characters and extended the action even more. The result was the biggest moneymaking movie of the year. It's hard to say if filmgoers went because they really thought this was a great movie or because they liked the first installment and assumed this one would be just as good.
Of course, the character that made the first movie work was Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, the goofy, mincing, half-looney pirate with the quick wit, lovable demeanor, and self-serving attitude. Like most viewers, I liked the character the first time around. The trouble is that Sparrow was at best a caricature, his Keith Richards stage presence a hoot, to be sure, but without a lot of substance beneath the superficial mannerisms. Now, it's more of the same, with a touch of gentle moral guidance toward the end and an explanation that his nutty gait doesn't really mean he's gay or he's seen too many Rolling Stones concerts. It's the result of too much rum. While the writers give Sparrow plenty of sly lines, and Depp is a good enough actor to bring it off with all the proper looks and glances that alone hold much of the film together, a single sketchy characterization is not enough around which to build an entire movie.
Instead, we get Depp running around a lot in a series of sword-fighting, knife-fighting, and just plain fighting scenes that seem more calculated to extend the movie's running time than to develop its plot, characters, moods, atmosphere, or themes. This may be due in part to what the Wife-O-Meter thought was the writers' attempt to pad out the story long enough to make two separate episodes. "Dead Man's Chest" is only the first half of a two-part movie that Disney made at around the same time but will release in two sections a year removed. I'd be willing to bet that by putting the two sections together and cutting out most of the filler, the moviemakers would have created a far better product. This one seems to go on forever, and it's only the first half!
Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley reprise their roles as William Turner and Elizabeth Swann, both of them performing admirably. Bloom may not yet have the on-screen charisma to carry a movie by himself, but in these supporting roles he is exceptionally good. Knightley, meanwhile, as talented as she is beautiful, is fast becoming one of filmdom's most impressive heroines. Now, if only these two actors had more to do than run aimlessly through the movie's fancy sets, things might have been more satisfactory.
The lackluster plot takes up where "Black Pearl" left off, but although the first film left us to suppose that all was well with these folks, it isn't to be. A new magistrate, the evil Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), comes to Port Royale and arrests both William and Elizabeth for aiding and abetting Captain Sparrow's escape, and nothing Elizabeth's father, Governor Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce), can say or do can save them. Except one thing: If William agrees to find Sparrow and bring back his compass, Beckett will free them all. Huh? A compass? So off goes William chasing Sparrow, off goes Elizabeth chasing William, and off goes Sparrow chasing dry land because the demonic Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is chasing him. And all of them eventually go off chasing a key that unlocks a dead man's chest that only the compass can find. The plot sounds like a video game.
Yes, there is a lot of chasing around in this film, all of it accompanied by a Hans Zimmer musical track that can sometimes be so loud it's hard to understand the dialogue (although, to be fair, I found the soundtrack more of a problem in a theater than at home, where I could adjust the volume). In fact, there is so much chasing around in this film, it quickly becomes tiresome. And it seems like as the film goes on, it gets more frenetic, as though the scriptwriters had run out of story ideas and decided simply to provide a series of action scenes for the sake of the action itself. Surely, there are no reasons for a few of the sequences, like one on a cannibal island and another at the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, other than as pure eye candy and adrenaline rushes. Which is fine, as far it goes, but they do little to advance the story.
And speaking of eye candy, no doubt Disney thought that as much CGI, costuming, and special effects as possible would mask the fact that there is so very little story line involved. I have to admit, "Dead Man's Chest" is fun to look at, with Nighy's makeup particularly effective as a half human, half octopus. And the Disney folks were perceptive enough to include as many homages as possible to past seafaring classics, with visual references to Doug Fairbanks's "Black Pirate," Burt Lancaster's "Crimson Pirate," and their own "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." The kraken, a legendary Scandinavian sea monster probably based on sightings of giant squids, makes a formidable appearance several times.
Yet none of this fancy CGI work can make up for a lack of strong personal relationships among the people involved, and here is where the movie lets us down. The script merely hands us a boatload of beloved characters--the three leads, plus Jack Davenport as the treacherous Commodore Norrington, now in considerably reduced circumstances, Stellan Skarsgard as Bootstrap Bill, William's deceased father, Kevin McNally as First Mate Gibbs, Geoffrey Rush in a cameo as Barbossa, and Naomie Harris, Lee Arenberg, and Mackenzie Crook as various friendly miscreants--and the filmmakers expect us to follow them anywhere, no matter if they're doing nothing at all.
Oh, well, maybe for most filmgoers the characters and their clever lines are enough. For me, the movie was overlong and rather tiring.
Trivia note: One would think that the song "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest" (from which the moviemakers derived their title) was a genuine old sea shanty. But no one has yet to prove that Robert Louis Stevenson didn't just make it up for his book "Treasure Island" in 1881 (long after the time setting of our movie), basing it on bits and pieces of old tunes he picked up wherever. Be that as it may, the song has come into our culture, implanting itself so firmly that it might just as well be authentic, and Disney was smart to capitalize on it.
I found both the video and the audio for this second "Pirates" adventure slightly better than that for the first one, even though the first one was THX mastered. The movie's 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio shows up at about 2.23:1, anamorphic, across my widescreen television (given a small degree of overscan), with the movie's standard-definition resolution showing to good effect courtesy of a high-bit-rate transfer. There is a touch of graininess in the darker scenes, nothing that probably wasn't inherent to the original print, and, otherwise, the image is bright and colorful in some shots and soft and subdued in others, depending on the nature of the story. I was especially impressed by the sharpness of facial contours, whiskers, and beards. It's a nice-looking picture.
I have nothing but praise for the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, too. It's probably as good as it gets, although I longed to hear it in Dolby Digital Plus or TrueHD. There is a very wide dynamic range involved, a midrange that is reasonably clean and clear, a strong impact, and an extremely big, deep, ofttimes thumping bass. Moreover, there are lots of surprises in the surrounds--voices, creakings, waves, arrows, cannon shot, and the like.
This 2-Disc Special Edition offers the usual assortment of goodies. Disc one contains the widescreen version of the film itself, with English, French, and Spanish spoken languages, French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired. In addition, it has an audio commentary with writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who, naturally enough, provide a good deal of information about the scripting of each scene. And it contains a three-minute section called "Bloopers of the Caribbean," which is fairly self-explanatory, twenty-eight scene selections, a chapter insert and navigational guide to the contents of both discs, and Sneak Peeks at nine other Disney products, including a preview of some of the studio's upcoming Blu-ray releases.
Disc two contains a number of documentaries and featurettes on the making of the film. Most of it, frankly, seems either redundant or pedestrian, and I would say its limited appeal may be best suited for adults. Starting things off is a twenty-five-minute preproduction diary, "Charting the Return," that explains more than we probably need to know about the planning of the film. Next is a sixty-two-minute, on-location journal, "According to Plan," that takes us behind the scenes with the filmmakers and actors. It could have done its job in half the time. After that is "Captain Jack from Head to Toe," about twenty-seven minutes if played all at once, telling us about Depp's costumes, makeup, and props.
Continuing on, we find a number of shorter segments. "Mastering the Blade" is about five minutes of stars Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and Jack Davenport honing their sword-fighting skills. "Meet Davy Jones: Anatomy of a Legend" is a twelve-minute bit on the CGI creation of the sea's ghostly ruler. "Creating the Kraken" is ten minutes of more CGI work, this time for the sea monster. "Dead Men Tell New Tales," ten minutes, explains how the famous Disneyland ride that inspired the movie got a face-lift to more resemble the movie. "Fly on the Set: The Bone Cage" is a three-minute piece on, well, the making of the bone cage. "Jerry Bruckheimer: A Producer's Photo Journey" is about four minutes of mainly still photography. And "Pirates on Main Street" is four minutes on the film's première.
The two discs come housed in a double slim-line keep case, further packaged in a handsomely embossed, beautifully illustrated slipcover.
"Dead Man's Chest" relies too heavily on our affection for the first movie and its characters to develop anything really new or exciting on its own. The location shooting is fine, the acting is fine, the movie's visual appearance and audio are fine, and, most of all, Johnny Depp's performance is fine. It's the script that needs work (sorry, Misters Elliott and Rossio). Now that filmmakers can recreate practically anything they want on screen, they might try to find a story solid enough to justify the effort. Just because you can do something does not mean you have to. Long and noisy is not enough.