A good film always starts with good writing. People used to say comic books weren't filmable, but smart scripting has developed them into a respected genre. Skimpy children's books have been fleshed out into quality entertainment, and someday they'll finally make a decent movie based on a video game. Hey, why not use a soft drink commercial as inspiration? Because if they can make a blockbuster inspired by an old and dank Disneyland theme park ride, I'm convinced anything's possible if written well.
Few thought 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would be a hit, but it was one of the year's most pleasant surprises—a funny, swashbuckling thrill ride that ultimately grossed more than $650 million worldwide. And now, few think that a sequel can possibly match that success or yield an equally amusing film.
Think again. Expectations are surpassed once again with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a film that not only lives up to its predecessor, but elevates it into a delightful saga that falls somewhere between the classic Indiana Jones films and the more recent Mummy movies.
What many people don't realize is that writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (Shrek and 1998's similarly swashbuckling The Mask of Zorro) envisioned Pirates as a trilogy. With the success of the first movie, the next two chapters were ensured, filming back-to-back to save on production costs—yes, Dead Man's Chest is a cliffhanger to be concluded next summer. Moreover, the people responsible for the first movie have all returned—not just Elliot, Rossio, and the lead actors, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski, and most of the supporting players as well.
Our story begins with Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), whose wedding day is rained upon literally and figuratively when both she and her heroic groom, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), are arrested by Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), a representative of the East India Trading Company, for aiding and abetting in the escape of one Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)—as you might remember from the ending of the first movie. The penalty is death, but Beckett is willing to make a deal with Turner—find Sparrow, retrieve his mysterious compass, and the young lovers will earn a full pardon.
With no alternative, Turner accepts and searches for Sparrow a la Heart of Darkness. Meanwhile, the eccentric pirate has been keeping busy in search of a certain special key. It seems he owes his soul to none other than Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the monstrously tentacled devil of the sea who bargains with dying sailors to gain their servitude with his mutated crew of half-men, half-sea creatures. Why did Sparrow strike the deal? What does the key open? And how is Will's presumed dead father, "Bootstrap" Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgard), involved in all of this?
Finding these answers and others is part of the fun, and we're not meant to discover them all in this film. For sure, it doesn't all make sense (yet), but it's enough to be caught up in the ride as it progresses. Dead Man's Chest moves at a brisk pace like a Saturday morning matinee and the Indiana Jones movies. It starts off a little slow, and it's not wall-to-wall action, but I was never bored and still wanted more after nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Much of the film's charm comes from its tight blend of adventurous derring-do with Python-esque slapstick. Sparrow makes another funny entrance in this movie, and I honestly couldn't stop laughing for minutes after he gives special payment for information from a mysterious voodoo lady. Fans of the series should also stay through the end credits for a parting laugh involving the fate of a "key character" to the series.
Half the humor also comes from the ridiculously over-the-top but well-staged action sequences. Building upon the playful sword-fighting of the first film, Dead Man's Chest features a thrilling three-way duel that's part Princess Bride and part Road Runner, culminating in a sort of free-for-all shell game as you try to decide who's swindling who.
The stunts and special effects live up to summer blockbuster standards as well. Particularly effective is the blend of makeup with CGI for Davy Jones' octopus face and his similarly creepy looking crew. And you can bet people will be buzzing all summer about the Kraken, a gigantic tentacled beast that snatches scores of terrified sailors while crushing their ships—more horrific than the famed giant squid of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and convincingly rendered with the same quality as the creatures of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I would caution parents to heed the PG-13 rating here. Like The Empire Strikes Back, this second chapter is considerably darker than its predecessor, though not as much as, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The creatures are more vicious in this, the makeup more frightening, and there's a cannibalistic tribe that's mostly played for laughs despite presenting a necklace of severed toes. The story also revels more in folklore and legend between the tribe's worship practices, the mythology surrounding Davy Jones, and a creepy voodoo lady that seems to have all the answers. Gruesome as it all sounds, most of it is carried with the air of a haunted house around Halloween—it never takes itself too seriously.
The series does adore its characters, though, and none more than Jack Sparrow, perhaps the most iconic new film character of this millennium thus far. Depp has masterfully made the role his own, developing it into something rich, quirky, memorable and truly unique. A sly chauvinist, yet almost a little fey with his charisma, it's a performance that captures your attention every time he's on screen, despite the character's disgusting hygiene. There's something about that mischievous glint in his eye and the way he can garner a laugh with a worried facial expression or even a mere grunt of frustration.
Depp's the standout, but let's not shortchange the rest of the cast. They all play their parts with equal measures of bravado and comedy. These roles work well in the context of the story, as does everyone else from the lowliest pirate to the snobbiest nobleman. Many have said that Will is too much a straight arrow, Elizabeth too much the feisty modern woman, and their romance too ignored. And yet I can't help but compare the chemistry of the three leads with that of another famed trio involving a hero, princess, and scoundrel that sidetracked some of its romantic potential in favor of humor and space action.
Not to say that this is as good as the original Star Wars trilogy, but it does create the same sort of fun thrill ride that used to be the norm during the summer movie season. In spite of its small shortcomings, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest deserves praise for being an old-fashioned popcorn movie that knows how to entertain. Audiences may have been doubtful of the first movie, and perhaps a little skeptical of this one, but you can bet they'll be clamoring for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End come May 2007.Discussion starters
- Captain Jack Sparrow—hero or rogue? Does he try to do the right thing in spite of his flaws, or is he a scoundrel who only helps others to get what he wants? Where do you think he ends up, and is it a true reflection of humanity's dual nature?
- At the start, Sparrow's motivations stem from a desire to cheat death. Do you think that changes by the film's end, particularly in his last scene? In other words, do you think he learned to embrace his mortality? What about Christianity? Are we able to somehow "cheat death," and if so, how do we face our mortality?
- What do you make of the film's references to pirate folklore and voodoo? Is there danger in the way it's presented—i.e. is it meant to be taken seriously? Why or why not?
- How do we reconcile such elements with the scene where two characters discuss divine providence vs. chance? Is anything meant to be read into that glimpse of theology, or is all the religion and superstition merely window dressing, just part of the storytelling?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
As much fun as this film is, take the PG-13 rating seriously. There's no bad language, there's some minor innuendo, and the action is generally old-fashioned swordplay. But it's definitely scarier than the first film—particularly Davy Jones, his monstrous crew, and a magical beating heart that's occasionally glimpsed. A leviathan with giant tentacles snatches sailors to their doom in multiple action sequences, with some blood as they try to harpoon the beast. There's also a cannibalistic tribe that presents a necklace of severed toes to their king. And one character is scourged, resulting in some bloody cuts on his back. Definitely a darker film than the original.
Photos © Copyright Buena Vista Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 07/13/06
They came from all directions. Skulls and crossbones marked their flags and jackets. They laughed hearty yo-ho-hos. Their buckles were swashed. Their eyes—those eyes not covered with eye patches—flared intensely under the brims of their impressive buccaneer hats. As they approached, snarling and threatening to throw rum bottles at those who got in their way, people scrambled to get out of their path.
And those were just the members of the audience. Fans of the 2003 original Pirates of the Caribbean stormed movie theaters over the weekend in full costume, eager to see the latest adventures of Elizabeth Swann, Will Turner, and that legendary pirate loon, Captain Jack Sparrow.
What they got was an action-packed, laugh-inducing sequel more than two-and-a-half hours long— Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. In fact, the film's final surprise was greeted with cheers, whistles and applause. Consider their timbers shivered!
In return Disney got a record-breaking weekend—$135.6 million, slamming Spider-Man's record to the ground. (Don't worry—the Webbed Wonder will try and re-take the title next year.)
Many Christian film critics—including myself—were cheering along with the rest of the crowd.
In a year of summer blockbusters that have been disappointing at best, disposable and joyless at worst, Dead Man's Chest arrives like an emergency delivery of fun. Bursting at the seams with adventure, chase scenes, comedy, and monsters so fantastic that Peter Jackson will turn green with envy, it's making this moviegoer shout a hearty yo-ho-hallelujah.
Chest boasts the most spectacular big-screen villain—in presence, design, and personality—since the shadow of Darth Vader first loomed in the smoky corridor of the rebel blockade runner. And who can contend with Johnny Depp, who storms the screen with more confidence and charm than we ever knew was possible? Returning to the role of the irascible, irresponsible, irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp gives one of those rare comic performances that should earn him another Oscar nomination. (He received a 2003 nod for Curse of the Black Pearl, but the award went to Sean Penn for Mystic River).
My full rave is at Looking Closer.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) raves that the movie offers "most of what you'd expect: an even more convoluted plot, even more eye-popping special effects and makeup, and an even more powerful supernatural nautical antagonist. … [T]he filmmakers have let their imaginations run wild, taking chances, striving to outdo themselves on every level. It's an approach that can yield self-indulgent, bloated excess—or brilliance." He concludes that this is an example of the latter, calling it "one of the most memorably entertaining popcorn flicks in memory."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "For a sequel, the new movie matches—if not tops—the original as first-rate popcorn entertainment with all the right ingredients: action-adventure, spectacle, screwball comedy and a bit of romance."
Taking a different tone, Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) opens fire on Captain Jack's ship. "I never thought the words swashbuckling and tedious could ever describe the same thing, yet that's the rare combination found in [Dead Man's Chest]."
And Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the movie "goes on much too long, then makes no effort to provide a satisfying ending." He adds that it "includes heavy doses of the macabre that will leave some viewers more disgusted than amused." But he concludes that the film "has a cartoonish quality that leavens even its darkest moments, and it includes a couple of bang-up sequences that remind us of how summer-movie thrills can delight with their lunacy and inspiration."
Meanwhile, mainstream critics seem bored and bewildered, uttering many a "yo-ho-humbug!" But it sure doesn't look like moviegoers are paying them any heed.from Film Forum, 07/20/06
Josh Hurst (Reveal) calls it "the most exhilarating and memorable big-screen adventure this side of The Fellowship of the Ring. There are elaborate set pieces; action sequences you won't believe; mystery upon mystery and secret upon secret; special effects and pyrotechnics that raise the bar for action movies everywhere; a thrilling score that ranks among the most distinctive since Raiders of the Lost Ark; and more spirited adventure than a whole galleon of amusement park rides. It's also riotously funny."