It was just three years ago that Johnny Depp finally achieved major superstardom and, believe it or not, his first Oscar nomination in a Disney movie based on a theme park ride and directed by Gore Verbinski (“The Ring,” “The Mexican”). 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” had swashbuckling adventure and freewheeling slapstick, but mostly it had Depp, who turned anti-hero Captain Jack Sparrow into the quirkiest franchise character since Crispin Glover’s George McFly from “Back to the Future.” The only difference is that Glover wasn’t carrying the entire picture on his shoulders.
So with Verbinski and Depp both returning for the sequel, you would think that “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” would stick to what works—more of the impish and unprincipled Jack Sparrow. And you’d be wrong.
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Filled to the brim of Jack’s moldy hat with subplots and characters that we don’t care about, “Dead Man’s Chest” is a prime example of sequel-itis. After the unanticipated success of the first film, Verbinski obviously felt the need to live up to loftier expectations, so the sequel is filled with so much unnecessary exposition and weightiness that he forgot to include the one thing that made the first one such a hoot—an infectious playfulness that most action/adventure films are sorely lacking these days.
Actually, that’s not completely accurate. That effervescent vibe survives in some of Depp’s scenes and a couple expertly designed and carried out action sequences. The problem is that “Dead Man’s Chest” is almost the same length as the first movie, but it feels twice as long. Part of the reason is that the plot makes absolutely no sense at all. There’s a cursed fish-man pirate named Davy Jones (not the Monkees’ singer) to whom Sparrow owes his soul, a marriage interrupted, a scorned suitor, a desperate father, a man trying to reclaim his honor, a key, a treasure chest, and a lot of fuss over a picture of the key to that treasure chest.
“Dead Man’s Chest” is the first of two sequels, filmed concurrently, and suffers from a sort of middle child syndrome, the definition of which, as far as movies go, is as follows:
1. The middle or second-born film often has the sense of not belonging. It fights to receive attention because it feels that it is being ignored or dubbed off as being the same as another sibling. It often starts several projects, but rarely keeps focused long enough to finish any of them.
In order to feel different from its predecessor, “Dead Man’s Chest” expands way too far on its original mythology when its hull simply cannot hold that much water. It treats every minor character, including Norrington, Pintel, Ragetti, Governor Swann, and Beckett (Remember them? Me neither.) like main characters when they deserve scarcely a scene or two. Keeping track of everyone’s motivation is a Herculean task, and offers little reward at the movie’s conclusion.
2. Being the middle child makes one feel insecure and isolated, trying too hard to be different. It often lacks drive and feels out of place because it lays back, content to go with the flow of things.
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The movie wants to be a different beast, a darker film than the original, and gets stuck in second gear in the first half hour, when Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Sparrow get separated for no particular reason other than to send them each on their own stalled adventure. The audience is forced to “go with the flow” because the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense. This may result in drowsiness for a period of time until which the next rousing action sequence occurs.
3. The middle child doesn’t latch on to a person in a relationship, and it has trouble keeping one due to lack of interest. It simply works just enough to get by.
None of the relationships feel even remotely real, and the movie forces an uncomfortable love triangle on the three main characters that fits like one of Knightley’s tiny corsets. Because it is so concerned with setting up the relationships for movie number three, “Dead Man’s Chest” sells its stars short, hoping to squeak by on state-of-the-art special effects and inventive action sequences.
What one is left with then– while pondering such unknowable questions such as “Why would destroying a cursed pirate’s heart not also destroy a sea monster under his control and also lift a debt owed to said cursed pirate?”– is a bevy of detailed special effects and excellent make-up that delights the eyes just as the unfocused story confuses the mind. “Dead Man’s Chest” contains two especially dynamic and funny action sequences that unfold at breakneck speed, and also some of the goriest PG-13 violence since Anakin Skywalker was burned alive in “Revenge of the Sith.” George Lucas may have conjured tons of CGI fire for his climactic scene, but Verbinski’s FX team are at the opposite end of the spectrum for two and a half hours, oozing water and all other manner of slimy liquids out of every pore, be it human or creature.
Maybe 2007’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” free of all the pressure to set up another adventure, will ratchet down the plot machinations and bring back that playful feeling, courtesy more Johnny Depp. Until then, we have an overweight middle child who wants attention so bad that it thinks eating more is the only way to be noticed.