July 9, 2006

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Posted in Movies at 7:09 pm by Calico Jack

©Disney

Along with almost everyone else, I was shocked three years ago when Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl turned out to be the best fun I had watching a movie in years. Here was a film that provided the audience with just about everything you could hope for in a summer popcorn movie: a hefty dose of swashbuckling; a character whose antics gave the audience hearty laughs; enough romance to keep the girls interested (but not too much to make the boys say “Yuck!”); and, most importantly, a plot that didn’t get bogged down in earnestness. And it made pirates cool again, leaving behind the bad taste of flops like Hook and Cutthroat Island.

Needless to say, I had high hopes for Dead Man’s Chest. I know that many movies suffer from sequelitis; but with the same director and screenwriters, it had a better chance than most to once again cast its spell on the audience. And I’m quite happy to say that although, critically speaking, Dead Man’s Chest isn’t quite as good as the original, I had even more fun watching this movie than I did Curse of the Black Pearl. With a running time of 150 minutes, this is even longer than the original; but I didn’t feel the passage of time nearly as much as I did in some parts of the first movie.

Dead Man’s Chest assumes a solid familiarity with the original, so little introduction is provided. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but if you haven’t seen the original since it was in theaters, you’re going to be a bit lost at the beginning. Also, the first act takes quite a while to get the gears turning, as all of the main characters (and quite a few of the secondary characters) need to make their presence known. Thankfully, this opening act is quite strong, save the introduction of Johnny Depp’s character. His reasons for finding the chest seem a bit contrived, as if the screenwriters had a great story in mind for Captain Jack Sparrow but couldn’t find a reason to get him there. However, I still enjoyed the opening sequences; they set the tone for the rest of the film and let the audience know that this is a darker film than the original, willing to take more chances with the audience’s trust.

Having said that, the plot of Dead Man’s Chest is a bit weaker than Curse of the Black Pearl, at least on the surface. The entire plot basically hinges on a MacGuffin, which also happens to be the “Dead Man’s Chest” itself. Because it is a MacGuffin, we never actually find out (in any detail) why the chest is so important. For a normal movie, this wouldn’t necessarily be problematic; sometimes you just accept a film’s premises and run with them. But Dead Man’s Chest is the first half of a five-hour movie; and although it is hinted that the chest will play a larger role in the third film, it never actually serves a role in the plot as the Aztec gold did in Curse of the Black Pearl. Personally, I didn’t mind this at all; I knew going into the film that it would end on a cliffhanger, and that the audience wouldn’t get the payoff that they might expect. Those who thought that this was a stand-alone movie might be slightly disappointed, however.

Aside from those little quibbles, Dead Man’s Chest is a masterpiece of summer filmmaking. Once again, Depp’s Sparrow steals the limelight in every scene he’s in. The surprise at watching such a wonderful character isn’t there anymore, because now we know what to expect. But I would argue that this only enhances the sequel, as throughout the movie I was eagerly wondering what Captain Jack Sparrow would do next…and he never fails to disappoint. There are at least a dozen hearty laughs in this movie; when is the last time you can say that about any film, even a comedy?

Orlando Bloom is still bland as Will Turner, but he serves as the perfect foil to Depp’s antics. Because this movie has even more characters competing for a larger chunk of screen time, he gets a little bit lost in the shuffle during the second act. But with so many other delightful personalities romping all over the screen, I didn’t mind at all. Surprisingly, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann undergoes the biggest maturation in this movie, and I suspect the audience reactions will be quite mixed as to the direction of her character development. I honestly wish I could say more about certain secondary characters, but I run the risk of spoiling a lot of the fun of Dead Man’s Chest. So I’ll just say instead that all of the performances are consistently entertaining, and almost all of the characters from the original film have more nuanced personalities–especially several who go in directions that you might not expect.

A lot of people are raving about the special effects, and they are spectacular. But I honestly don’t remember thinking “Wow!” while looking at any particular visual effect, because I was so immersed in the sheer enjoyment of watching the movie. That is an awfully hard thing for a movie to do to a jaded moviegoer like myself, and it’s a sign of just how well Dead Man’s Chest works as an experience, not just a film. There is one three-way swordfight towards the climax of the movie that is quite breathtaking in its inventiveness, but I’ll refrain from explaining the details and leave you to enjoy the artistry involved.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is the perfect summer film. It’s a big, rollicking, thrilling movie that avoids being a simple repetition of the first. It’s long, but it never taxes the audience’s patience. Most of all, however, it’s extremely fun–the most fun I’ve had at a movie since…well, since Curse of the Black Pearl. To fully appreciate the plot you must pay attention or you’ll quickly be lost in all of the various threads that twist and turn until they all tie together in the third act. The last thirty minutes are pure joy, leaving the audience alternately laughing and cheering…until the whole thing comes to a screeching halt with a shocking cliffhanger that sets things up quite nicely for the final film. Dead Man’s Chest earns a solid A.

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