Extended Thoughts on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy
The phrase “less is more” comes to mind when thinking of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (hereafter referred to by its subtitle), though it’d be more accurate to say “more is less.” The 2006 follow-up to one of the more surprisingly enjoyable blockbusters in recent memory was a harsh reminder that catching lightning in a bottle is awfully hard to replicate. Last month, I discussed how Captain Jack Sparrow was the worst thing to happen to Johnny Depp, but now I wonder if Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is the worst thing to happen to Disney’s live-action filmmaking arm. It’s not as direct a connection, but the lessons Disney learned from that film’s widespread success—hell, Depp nearly won a Best Actor Oscar for playing a drunken pirate—prove that they didn’t actually learn anything aside from cravenly assuming Johnny Depp + special effects = money, money, money.
When you look at the making Dead Man’s Chest and its follow-up, At World’s End, it’s almost amazing that either movie has any mildly coherent or enjoyable elements. (Yes, I’m going as far as dubbing Dead Man’s Chest “mildly coherent”! Put that on the next Blu-ray reissue, Disney. Just spell my name right.) Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were not the first screenwriters to feverishly rush to finish their script on the set of an in-production film, nor are they the last. There is, perhaps, a mistaken notion—one I had when I was younger and knew far less than the meager knowledge I have now—that the screenplays of our great films were produced almost magically, not pored over by tens of people, from producers to actors to directors to writers. The Curse of the Black Pearl had four credited writers, and among them, there were various drafts and iterations of the basic concept. As much as we’d like it to be otherwise, the gestation of a script is fractious and decidedly imperfect. Dead Man’s Chest has a painfully flawed one, though, so it makes perfect sense that Elliott and Rossio wrote the majority of the script on the set. If you didn’t know about the behind-the-scenes struggles, you could still from the film itself, which features a scene where two of its characters watch action unfolding in front of them and literally explain what is happening in that action.
Every time I watch Dead Man’s Chest, I want to like it more than I do. (Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I have seen this movie more times than is sane or appropriate.) As I watched it for the podcast, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of The Curse of the Black Pearl, which he gave three stars despite criticizing its length, 143 minutes compared to Dead Man’s Chest 151 minutes. The opening sentence of his review: “There’s a nice little 90-minute B movie trapped inside the 143 minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that charms its audience and then outstays its welcome.” Now, I don’t fully agree with that assessment specific to the original, but a) I see what he means and b) that sentiment absolutely applies to the sequel. It may be a fool’s errand and more than a bit presumptuous to watch something and attempt to pinpoint exactly what should and shouldn’t have stayed in the final product, but I can’t help myself, especially seeing as there is a nice little 90-minute B movie trapped inside this film, specifically in the first act.
The basic conflict of Dead Man’s Chest is that Captain Jack Sparrow is a desperately sought-after gentleman who wants very badly to not be found. His old friends Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are arrested on their wedding day for aiding and abetting him in The Curse of the Black Pearl. Their jailer, the weaselly Cutler Beckett of the East India Trading Company, promises them that if either gets him Sparrow’s fabled compass—which conveniently points directly at that which the holder desires most of all—they’ll be pardoned. Sparrow is on the hunt for the same thing Beckett secretly wants, the heart of Davy Jones, encased in the titular chest. (Stop laughing.) To get the chest, Sparrow must find the key, and so he gets Will to help him look. (You can see, by now, that this movie is terrifically convoluted, often to its disadvantage.) He also tries to get Elizabeth to find the key, all while dodging Jones himself, who’s eager to get Jack to repay a long-owed debt by being his prisoner for 100 years. Everyone wants the same thing, but the presentation of how everyone tries to get the chest while Jones attacks with his vicious, deformed sailors and the Kraken is so overwritten, as if Elliott and Rossio presume that the playful dialogue of the first film is best replicated with dizzyingly un-clever lines that beg to be acknowledged as Wildean bites of wit.
There is a very good, old-fashioned movie inside of Dead Man’s Chest, and it’s easy to spot. By the end of the first hour, the real plot has kicked into gear; however, before then, Will has to save himself, Jack’s crew, and Jack himself from a mysterious tribe on a deserted island who believe Jack to be a god in human form. As such, they wish to free him from his bodily form so he can get back to being the best deity they ever did see, or something along those lines. Point is, Jack is soon to be a dead man himself if he doesn’t escape, ironic because his goal in landing on the island was to stay as far away from deep water and Davy Jones. The colorful, action-packed chase through the island is lush, beautiful, surreal, and mysterious. Here is the film Dead Man’s Chest could’ve been: fleet, tight, exciting, and daring in ways that even the original was not. The first-act sequence is all of those things, even though we’re nowhere near approaching the main plot; hell, Davy Jones doesn’t even make an appearance until the 60-minute mark.
Elliott and Rossio chose, for whatever godforsaken reason, to ignore the most obvious template in terms of laying out future stories, and attempt to reverse-engineer a trilogy, just like what happened with The Matrix series. (And as we all know, that worked out marvelously well for Warner Bros. Pictures and the Wachowskis.) As I mentioned last month, they focused more on mythology of the universe in which the characters reside, less on the characters themselves. Captain Jack Sparrow is less of a Han Solo figure, more of an Indiana Jones or James Bond. Those characters are equally unkillable, shrewd, clever, and adventurous. But Han Solo’s a lively character in a world of import, whereas Indiana Jones especially is a serialized figure, someone who can pop up in any number of outrageous, exotic locales, his reputation preceding him and causing him trouble, and get into tons of scrapes.
I don’t get why Elliott and Rossio actively avoided the Indiana Jones model, one that’s proven to be massively successful in creative and financial terms. Yes, people got furious at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but they only did so because the three films that preceded it were, to varying degrees, beloved. In comparison, Captain Jack Sparrow is a one-movie fluke. I’ve made a variation on this point in the past, but sometimes, I wonder why the people who work for Walt Disney Pictures are so scared of owning their successes. Why shy away from what clearly would work well? Why make the process of creating a new film that much more difficult? The notion, of course, is that we want sequels that are exactly like the first film, just with more of everything. And so we get a terrifying visual spectacle among the bad guys, we get a prolonged swordfight, we get a wacky lead character being even wackier. But sometimes, a good sequel works because it knows its limitations. Again, looking at the Indiana Jones and James Bond movies, you see—more with the former—stories that don’t attempt to push their heroes to such points that they become superheroes instead of real people. (Again, that’s why movies like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull get derided, because they forget the origins of that which we love.)
The same goes for Johnny Depp himself, who’s clearly unaware of his limits or how much we’ll tolerate him. Depp, as the rascally Sparrow, isn’t bad here, but there are a few moments where you can see him acting, where you can see him calculating each twitch, each flail of the arm, each bulge of the eyes. In between the first and second Pirates of the Caribbean films, Depp had one other huge role, as Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s garish Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake. I could, admittedly, not criticize him for replicating any Sparrow-like tendencies in the part, obviously based on Michael Jackson’s public persona. That doesn’t mean his work since The Curse of the Black Pearl has shown a new side even within his familiar quirks. He prances, he darts, he all but demands to be called “flamboyant,” but in such a way that is too rehearsed, too planned. We knew to expect this from Depp, and instead of trying hard, he simply meets our preexisting expectations.
The Curse of the Black Pearl is an imperfect film—though pretty much every movie not called Singin’ In The Rain or A Matter of Life and Death is imperfect—yet it is immensely charming. Dead Man’s Chest is not absent of joy or life, but they are mere sparks created with meager flint and tinder as opposed to its predecessor’s burgeoning flames. What was once effortless now looks very hard. I can’t imagine that many people had high expectations for The Curse of the Black Pearl before it opened. Oh, sure, Disney executives like Michael Eisner crossed their fingers and hoped it would be profitable. But most people likely assumed the film would be terrible, because of course a movie based on a theme-park attraction would be an embarrassment. When it turned out to be exactly the right mix of action, romance, comedy, and thrills, a movie closer to something like Raiders of the Lost Ark than some people give it credit for, everyone was shocked. And they were hopeful that the sequel would be more of the same. We expected nothing of The Curse of the Black Pearl, and we expected everything of Dead Man’s Chest. The filmmakers were all too aware of this, so maybe it’s inevitable yet depressing that this movie is a sometimes-compelling, bloated mess.