Dead Men Do Tell Tales (for Better and Worse) in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Written by Sombrero Grande

In anticipation of tonight’s midnight screenings of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at my reviews for the first three films in the series. Won’t you join me?

Way back in January 2003, I, Sombrero Grande, offered up a review of the teaser trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl on the Masked Movie Snobs web site. Let’s take a nostalgic look back, shall we?

When I first heard that Disney was making movies based on several of its timeless theme park attractions, I expected nothing but the worst. After all, this is the same company that’s scaling back everything on its original animated films while raping its previous masterpieces to produce countless direct-to-suck sequels. Fortunately the Country Bears movie came and went so quickly that it’s soon to be totally forgotten. Still on the horizon, however, are The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. I don’t feel I need to tell you how beloved these classic attractions are; they just don’t make rides like those anymore. So when I saw that the teaser trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean was online, I immediately downloaded it, fully expecting to be disgusted and saddened.

Wow. Not so at all. This is easily the greatest trailer I have seen in a long time. The music is exciting. The setup is intriguing. “Welcome to the Caribbean.” Welcome indeed. I feel like I’m stepping into a boat, not having any idea what’s ahead, and being totally caught off guard by what’s around that first turn. There are lots of trailers that start out looking like one type of movie only to later reveal something totally different; few of them work; very few work this well. I can’t wait for this movie now. This trailer did the impossible; it’s given me hope that Disney can actually do something cool with this idea. That skeleton foot gives me goosebumps.

Well, I’m very glad to report that Disney has done something cool with this idea. I found Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl to be surprisingly good. It’s an action-packed summer movie that delivers interesting characters well-performed in a competently written and directed story. Bravo! Sure, there’re a few moments and lines of dialogue that caused my eyes to roll (like the “corset” line from the full trailer), but surprisingly few for a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and none so bad that they stopped my enjoyment of the film.

This movie is enormously fun and entertaining. I love that Disney’s managed to make pirates cool again (so many previous attempts at pirate movies have not managed to gather much of an audience–Cutthroat Island, anyone?–causing the appearance that “pirate” movies are a genre even deader than Westerns). For a company who lately fancies pieces of crap thought of as “sure things” (102 Dalmatians), it’s really a daring move putting a big-budget pirate movie out there now. Of course, Disney had the known “Pirates of the Caribbean” brand (though before writing this sentence I had never before really considered it a “brand”) so at least the Disney theme park fanatics were a sure bet to see it.

So how closely does this movie relate to the ride it draws its inspiration from? There’s the main plot line about pirates cursed by treasure who become skeletons (based on the early portion of the ride where a skeleton pilots the wreckage of a ship, another sits atop a pile of gold, another drinks from a never-ending bottle, etc.) and some clever nods to specific portions of the ride (the drunken pirate napping with pigs, the jail scene, the skeleton drinking, the “Yo Ho” song, little bits of dialogue, etc.) but for the most part, this is it’s own story outright that merely takes place within the “Pirates of the Caribbean” universe (thus the laboriously tacked-on “Curse of the Black Pearl” addition to the title to help differentiate it a bit from the ride). All in all, the movie has enough ride references to earnestly pay homage to its inspiration, but not so much that it becomes corny or interferes with the story (the latter being evident in Disney’s next ride-to-film translation, The Haunted Mansion).

Even the casting of the minor characters and motley crews of pirates seem to pay homage to the distinct style of Disney Imagineer Marc Davis’ designs for the charicaturish Audio-Animatronic characters in the ride. Speaking of casting, Johnny Depp is great as Captain Jack Sparrow, a more interesting character than I was expecting and who has one of the best character introductions I can recall in a recent movie. My very favorite Depp performance is in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, but this comes very close.

A few quick words of praise for the score composer, Klaus Badelt: I didn’t even notice the music in the film until it was replayed over the ending credits, which is a big compliment and sign of a job executed magnificently. Conversely, a small nit-pick is that the CGI skeletons pretty much looked like CGI, though the transitions of the real actors into skeletons in the moonbeams was flawless.

You know, I could end this review with some hokey pirate or theme park sayings like, “Avast, mateys! Sea this or walk the plank,” or “This ride’s a real E-ticket,” but I won’t. Instead I’ll simply urge anyone looking for a truly fun and entertaining film to be on the lookout for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Unlike Disney’s other films based on rides, this one has the “sea legs” to stand on its own.

In my Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe review I wrote about how desperate Disney is for a new film franchise these days. I don’t think any audience went into the original Pirates of the Caribbean film with high hopes; after all, it came on the heels of the dismal Country Bears movie and at a time when Disney was still known for fumbling its live-action efforts and brazenly rehashing its treasures from the past for a quick, crappy remake and short-term gains. However, when Curse of the Black Pearl turned out to be quite a good flick and really struck a chord with moviegoers, Disney realized this was a potential cash cow that was ready to be milked. I mean, here’s a film that single-handedly made pirates cool in popular culture again. Thus, we get Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the first of at least two sequels to the original home run of a film.

However, in their rush to build this new golden franchise, Disney apparently ran out of ideas. The story is very similar to the first movie in that another ruthless and supernatural pirate crew (in an even creepier boat than the Black Pearl) with ties to Captain Jack Sparrow pursues our heroes around the Caribbean while the British (here narrowed to the just outright evil East India Trading Company) make things generally difficult as well. Instead of seeing Sparrow’s motley crew take on supernatural skeleton pirates, here they’re supernatural sea monster pirates, which, I have to admit, isn’t ultimately as fun as it sounds. And when all this sea monster business doesn’t end up filling as much of the movie as the filmmakers hoped, they pad an early segment of the story by borrowing some headhunters, seemingly from the nearby Jungle Cruise ride, for a lengthy and needless bit of filler.

I think the main flaw in Dead Man’s Chest is that all the sea monster and cannibal island business just doesn’t feel all that “piratey.” In my Superman Returns review I complained that I didn’t remember seeing an American flag anywhere in the film; here, I don’t recall ever seeing a single skull-and-crossbones pirate flag. It’s as though all the “pirate” stuff was muted in a story that just comes across as generally supernaturally nautical instead.

But I think the biggest issue audiences will have with the film is how it ends. In trying to build Pirates of the Caribbean into a franchise, Disney apparently looked to emulate one of the biggest film franchises of all time, Star Wars, to structure how the following movies in the trilogy would be constructed. That is to say, there is much about the ending of Dead Man’s Chest that appears similar to The Empire Strikes Back in that it ends in a cliffhanger and on a downer as well. Remember how at the end of Empire Luke’s hand was cut off by Vader, Lando had betrayed everyone, C-3PO was in pieces, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, and we wouldn’t even learn if Solo survived until the next film? As long as you go into Dead Man’s Chest expecting something along those lines, you shouldn’t be as shaken/upset as some of the people at the screening I saw were.

The tone of the film is all over the place. It’s really a horror/comedy/adventure story that at times focuses on the different aspects of those genres. The cannibal island escape borders on the cartoonish to such a degree that you’ll swear physics took a vacation to allow for crazy sight gags as if Johnny Depp had Goofy playing his stunt double. In the horror department, there’s considerably much more blood, “jump out and say, ‘boo,’” scares, and light gore than the first movie. Early on you’ll see a crow tear a screaming prisoner’s eye out of its socket as almost a warning to audiences that Disney isn’t going to be aiming this franchise at little kids.

But I don’t mean to just beat down this film. There are some good elements to Dead Man’s Chest, and overall it’s a great summer popcorn movie. Davy Jones makes for an excellent and mesmerizing villain. Jones’ crew of sea monster pirates look amazing and their designs show creativity to spare (I’ll certainly be getting all of their action figures). Depp’s return as Captain Jack Sparrow marks the first time the actor’s ever played the same character in two movies, and his exceptionally fun pirate persona is just as energetic and enjoyable this second time around. The introduction of Bootstrap Bill Turner makes for some great scenes with Orlando Bloom’s otherwise bland Will Turner character. The film’s signature action sequence, a three-way sword fight in and on a runaway mill wheel, is almost worth the price of admission alone.

While Dead Man’s Chest is a fun popcorn movie, its sails aren’t nearly as full as those of the Black Pearl. What frustrates me most about it is that Dead Man’s Chest doesn’t come across so much as a movie in its own right, or even as a half a movie (to be paired with At World’s End), but mostly as the springboard of a carefully calculated new franchise. Curse of the Black Pearl can stand on its own as an incredibly fun piece of escapist entertainment, but Dead Man’s Chest introduces so many new characters and plot lines to the film’s universe it feels more like the pilot episode of an ongoing serial. And while I know that’s exactly what Disney wants to do with its Pirates of the Caribbean movies from here on out, I do feel a little taken advantage of now that I’ll have to wait a year and then pay another $10 to find out what happens next in the now ongoing story.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is a film that delights in excess. I’m sure you, dear reader, have heard the phrase “less is more,” but I’m not sure the makers of this film have. There’s more of everything in this latest installment of Disney’s surprise hit franchise: more pirates, more crew members, more ships, more explosions, more plotlines–heck, there’s even more Jack Sparrows (you read that right–plural Jack Sparrows). But, sadly, more of everything else doesn’t amount to more enjoyment for the viewer here.

Simply put, the main plotline in At World’s End sees Lord Cutler Beckett and the East India Trading Company setting out to exterminate all pirates worldwide. Since Beckett now possesses the heart of Davy Jones, the supernatural Flying Dutchman and its cursed crew are at his command. Only one ship can possibly stop the Flying Dutchman and that’s the Black Pearl, which was sent to Davy Jones’ Locker along with Captain Jack Sparrow at the end of the previous film. There are dozens of other plotlines that pepper the film (virtually every character gets one) and few of them end up A) amounting to anything or B) ultimately making any sense. The plotlines surrounding Calypso and her connections to Barbossa and Davy Jones seem particularly important early on and then disappear by the end with little explanation or resolution. When you’ve got a movie stuffed with so many characters, each trying to have their own story unfold, even with its long running time, At World’s End just doesn’t have the strength to pull it off. It will surely take multiple viewings for any observer to understand everything that’s going on in all these plotlines, and I don’t know how many audience members will have the strength to pull that off.

There are many stretches of At World’s End that drag on, though the film attempts to make up for it at the end with a spectacular battle that seems to be trying to compete with the epic battles of the Lord of the Rings trilogy for sheer “number of things happening at once” dizziness. Here is where the audience can tell this is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie as, by the end, explosions are everywhere. Pieces of wood explode as if they were dynamite themselves, hurtling chunks and bits through the air in slow motion. This propensity for objects to erupt unexpectedly reminded me of a Simpsons episode wherein Homer was trying to make breakfast. First he tried cooking eggs and bacon over the stove and they caught on fire. Then he tried cooking them in a microwave where, again, they caught on fire. Lastly he tried simply pouring himself a bowl of cereal; that, too, caught on fire.

If you thought the leap in fantasy from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie to the second was a stretch (skeletal cursed pirates to sea monsters and half-man, half-sea creatures), get ready for even more fantastical leaps. In fact, the film gets downright surreal and laughably unbelievable at points. It all begins with the trek to, as Tia Dalma puts it, “de end of de eart’” and an ice cave and waterfall that make anything from Middle Earth look mundane. In the purgatory of Davy Jones’ Locker things really take a turn for the seemingly drug-induced as the audience is reunited with not one but dozens of Jack Sparrows. Apparently Jack has gone mad and these multiple Jacks will continue to haunt him (and us) on and off throughout the film. When the movie gets to transforming crab-rocks and giant sea goddesses, there won’t be a single audience member left not scratching their heads.

Not only does the crew of the Black Pearl grow in At World’s End (Captain Barbossa is back with new recruits from Singapore) but Davy Jones’ crew seems to have mysteriously swelled as well. Seeing new half-man, half-“something from the sea” crew members showing up in the new movie reminds me of the Star Wars prequels and how, regardless of the fact that even though these films were supposed to come before the originals chronologically, each installment proceeded to introduce race upon race of new aliens never-before-seen just because they could. If we can assume that the encrusting of sea creature qualities happens gradually (as we can note in the changes we witness to Bootstrap Bill across the two movies), then how the heck can totally new, totally sea-creature-esque baddies suddenly pop into being? It’s not even easy to spot them (other than the eel-headed guy who seems to be the only one we get a decent look at on screen) due to the excess of the fight sequences, as they’re mainly relegated to background fights or pop on and off the screen too fast to see. So now I have to ask the question, if you’re not going to really use any of the new crew members, why go to all the trouble to design, create and animate them? If not for the concept art posted in this article at Ain’t It Cool News, I wouldn’t have likely noticed these new guys in the film at all.

As the story and situations veer farther and farther from the theme park attraction origins of the franchise, the references to the ride that inspired all of this get more blatant, forced and ludicrous. When the ship sent to retrieve Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl plummets over a waterfall, the screen goes dark and actual sound clips from the theme park ride are played, to the befuddlement and awkward chuckles of the audience.

Something that really bugs me about At World’s End is that it introduces an annoying new aspect to the Pirates of the Caribbean universe, and that is that no one can really ever die in it. Barbossa dies at the end of the first movie, yet is brought back in the second. Jack Sparrow dies at the end of the second, yet is brought back in the third. This is a dangerous precedent to set as now the fight scenes, adventure sequences, and their consequences become relatively meaningless. Jack Sparrow longs for immortality in the film but, it seems to me, he already has a form of it. Perhaps that’s why he’s so driven to find the Fountain of Youth, as is hinted will be the subject of the fourth movie, so that as long as he can never really die, Sparrow (and all his doppelgangers) can remain looking young for many, many more sequels to come.

Ultimately, At World’s End is a movie brimming with excess and far too much in it that’s merely “cool for the sake of being cool.” From the Matrix-like, explosion-filled action sequences to the mysterious new members of Davy Jones’ crew to the multiple Jack Sparrows to the artsy-fartsy surreal sequences to the much ballyhooed cameo by Keith Richards (whose character is almost utterly pointless and obviously shoehorned in), all this “gee whiz” coolness and excess allows little room for substance in the film, leaving At World’s End an odd, at-times amusing, frenetic popcorn romp, and nothing else.

Will Disney’s fourth Pirates of the Caribbean end up a home-run hit like Curse of the Black Pearl, an all-out mess like At World’s End, or somewhere in the middle like Dead Man’s Chest? We’ll find out tonight at midnight when moviegoers set sail On Stranger Tides.

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