“Two hours and 20 minutes is a wearying time to spend on a movie that’s really about nothing,” I wrote of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Not wanting to offend me the same way twice, Gore Verbinski’s follow-up to the Disneyland ride adaptation is just as innocuous, but runs 15 minutes longer.
Saying you’re not a Pirates of the Caribbean movie fan gets reactions like you’ve spoken out against puppies and ice cream. After all, why hate something that’s such innocent fun? But “fun” is an effect Pirates alludes to more often than it achieves. On a scene-by-scene basis some of this is fine. A passage where Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is made saviour, and eventual dinner, of a cannibal tribe has some real excitement. There’s a funny energy in his attempted escape while tied to a spit—it doesn’t matter that it’s barely connected to the main story; it’s one of the few times Pirates’ parade of slapstick feels unforced. Sparrow’s screen introduction is equally spirited. Yet the tired succession of moments deflates real pleasure. Mileage isn’t the same thing as quality, just as repetitive bombast doesn’t equal thrills and dumb is a poor substitute for fun. Verbinski’s pacing of action appears to use every available take of cannons firing and pirates being thrown around deck, until any attempted tension is nullified by boredom.
The road to excess is paved in banality. Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) are about to be married, but authorities make them locate Sparrow. The trio’s interplay isn’t as funny as it could be because the screenplay hasn’t decided on their feelings toward each other. It becomes an adventure featuring personalities but not characters.
Taking the production route of the Back to the Future and Matrix sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was shot in unison with its third chapter (opening next summer). This leaves the middle installment without self-contained narrative satisfactions. Dead Man’s Chest is just a bloated and unending variation of what we’ve seen already.
Even its jolly innocence reeks of corporate research. Elizabeth’s hissy fit on a beach, as Sparrow deals with a conflict through fencing, has Knightley channeling the cross-armed pouting of Disney’s Tinkerbell. The evocation feels out of place. Disney has given up its simple, sometimes charming, formulas for Pirates’ more caustic parade of cliche. The studio’s live action 1985 films Return to Oz and The Journey of Natty Gann stayed involving and frightening by remaining attached to their protagonist’s emotive states. Those “kid movies” were edgier than the theme park rum fiends of Dead Man’s Chest, and more enjoyable too. Sure, tentacle-faced bad guy Davy Jones is an amazing visual effect, but he’s imaginatively just a cloned design of the Return of the Jedi’s Squid Head. State-of-the-art technology is wasted when it’s not serving anything to care about. People wowed by the size of Verbinski’s production, who then declare him the new Spielberg, reveal a poor understanding of visual storytelling and the power that movies can attain.
There’s a reason the title refers to an extracted heart. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest might not be fish food, exactly. But it’s surely lacking fire and originality.
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