Graham Re-Watches Pirates, part 2: Dead Man’s Chest

Image result for pirates dead man's chest

Part 1 here

In the time between the first and second films in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I served a two-year church mission in Spain, came home, changed jobs a few times (in a period I like to call “career A.D.D.”), and crashed at least two different relationships, maybe three. I don’t remember all that well. 2006 wasn’t great for me, in general.

So I was more than a little excited for a trip back down to the Caribbean during the golden age of piracy, sailing the seas with old Captain Jack and his merry band of miscreants. Gibbs, Marty, Cotton, Pintel, and Raghetti were still out there having adventures. I’d be dipped if I wasn’t going to be part of it.

There’s a hazard with watching a movie under those circumstances: you tend to overlook the flaws. And while Dead Man’s Chest was still a really good movie, it shot itself in the foot by not figuring out just a few things. I didn’t realize it back then, but after rewatching DMC last week, I thought I’d weigh its strengths against the weaknesses:

  1. Gore Verbinski. I will stress this again in my review of At World’s End, I’m almost sure of it. Now that I’ve watched 1 & 2 back-to-back, I’m much more aware of the thematic continuity that made these earlier films better than the later ones. Verbinski is the right director for these characters and stories.
  2. Jack once again was not the main character, but he managed to derail their lives. Doubtless Disney didn’t want to foul up the formula that had made Black Pearl such a success, so once again they started out with Will & Elizabeth in love, only to be foiled by Jack and his antics…which center on him dealing with a curse from his past. This promptly results in Will leaving Port Royal to hunt down Jack, and Elizabeth escaping custody to hide amongst sailors and find Will.
  3. Davy Jones managed to be an even more formidable villain than Hector Barbossa. Jack finally had to go up against someone that he proved unable to outwit, out-charm, or outmaneuver. Granted the antics of Commodore Norrington resulted in Davy Jones losing control of his heart, but that wasn’t Jack’s doing.
  4. Commodore Norrington proved he was more than a knock-over villain. While Black Pearl could have ended on a lighthearted note, with Norrington giving the pirates a slight lead before going after them, Dead Man’s Chest shows the writers’ commitment to following through on the events of the previous movie. What better way to motivate Norrington than to strip him of what he needs in order to be great–his crew and support staff–and leave him wanting? Without him, Jack would have gotten what he wanted (Jones’ heart) and the story would have ended very differently, possibly with Jack being forced into the captaincy of the Flying Dutchman.
  5. They patched up a stealth plot hole from the first film. Anyone who thinks about Black Pearl after the fact could only come to one certain conclusion: if Bootstrap Bill was a victim of the Aztec curse, then he was strapped to a cannon somewhere at the bottom of the sea, unable to die. (Which was why the pirates needed his blood.) However, that meant that he was still alive somewhere at the bottom of the sea, so the pirates could have easily dropped down there beside him and walked around until they found him, cut him loose, and brought him back to the surface to end the curse. BUT. In the likely event that they wouldn’t find Bootstrap, then breaking the curse would instantly kill him via drowning, wherever he was. We see how they resolved this in the second film: Bootstrap was shanghaied into Jones’ crew.
  6. Once again, the supporting cast were not overly hokey or weird. Aside from the aforementioned pirates on the Black Pearl, we also got introduced to Tia Dalma and Davy Jones, who were superb in their roles. The directors of Dead Men Tell No Tales tried to recapture this magic and succeeded…but only halfway. More on that in part 5.

 

Now that I’ve mentioned the strengths, I do want to address a few weaknesses:

  1. The practical effects for Jones’ crew were great. The CGI was not. And this became very apparent during my re-watch these 11 years later. While the pirate CGI from Black Pearl is still as good as ever, the sea monsters in Dead Man’s Chest were a touch too ambitious, to the point of being almost comical once the Kraken shows up to eat Jack.
  2. Some gags and sideplots took a little too long to play out. This was pretty clear with the Pelegostos natives. I feel like that segment of the story slowed the pace a touch too much, even if it was enjoyable on its own. It was, though, delivering on a side-joke from Black Pearl, when Jack told the British sailors that an unnamed band of natives “made me their chief.” We got to see this mystical legendary side of Jack, but at a cost to the pacing.
  3. The biggest complaint I have for this movie, and any of the Verbinski trilogy: they completely screwed up Elizabeth’s character in the second half. She starts out great–a scorned woman whose wedding was derailed by an ambitious and blackmailing sea lord!–only to be demoted from “character” to “mechanism” in the name of adding forced controversy. There was no prior indication that she should ever have fallen for Jack. That whole sidestory was bunk and it made her character obnoxious for this stretch of the plot.
  4. In their efforts to recapture the magic for the first film, they kept forcing too many things for the second film. This was never clearer than it was on Isla Cruces, when everyone showed up to grab Davy Jones’ chest. The three-way fight between Jack, Will, and Norrington–while certainly a great visual spectacle–was a major tonal shift from everything else leading up to it. In trying to showcase Jack’s agility and acrobatics, they shoved him into a water wheel and put a completely impractical–and highly distracting–fight on screen, hoping to remind audiences of the great fight between Jack and Barbossa in Black Pearl without outright copying it.
  5. There’s no way Gibbs would have left Jack like that. Yes, I understand they have to “stick to the code.” But when they asked where Jack was, and Elizabeth said he’d opted to stay behind and give them a chance, everyone had to know that that was bunk, and all anyone had to do–especially first mate Joshamee Gibbs–was look up over the side of the boat, or even call out to Jack (who would have called foul play or shouted for someone to let him loose). So on a second watch-through, that didn’t pass the smell test.

All that said, I still liked it overall. Those things weren’t major surgical problems (except for the misuse of Elizabeth’s affections at the end) they were just bits that stood out here and there and took me out of the story. If you’re asking me to sit through two and a half hours, they’d better all be worth it.

Still, it was better than Tides or Tales. 

Next up, part 3.

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