#1 in my ranking of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
I’ve always considered Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest to be the best of the franchise pretty purely because of its tone. It feels most like the kind of fun adventure tale that each movie seems to shoot for. It has a better balance between its tragic villains and adventurous antics so that it never gets weighed down with heavy moments, allowing them to come and go quickly to establish what they need to establish before moving on to something lighter. The movie never gets super light, though, preventing any kind of really weird tonal shifts that could cause some discord within the film.
The first film was written in such a way that sequels could happen, dropping in things that could be expanded later, but there didn’t seem to be a huge plan for which way to go. The first two sequels go quickly into much weirder territory implying, I think, a greater influence Gore Verbinski had on the writing of the scripts. It feels like he was largely a director for hire in the first, and he was able to much more creatively guide the next two. I’ve never done a study of his work, but I am familiar with it, and the odd faces, weird body horror, and dirty designs fit well with his other movies like Rango and A Cure for Wellness, culminating in what may be the single weirdest big budget adventure film ever made.
Anyway, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) are set to be married when their wedding day is crashed by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), determined to find Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his mysterious compass that does not point north. Jack, at the same time, is searching for a mythical key owned by Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the mysterious captain of the terrifying Flying Dutchman. The key goes to a chest that contains something Jack wants. It turns out that Jack and Beckett want the same thing, and so begins our new twisty-turny adventure in plot misdirects and Caribbean pirate action. Recounting the plot would be ridiculous, but needless to say it involves a cannibal island where Jack is made their chief (in order to cook him), daring escapes, Will’s father, Bootstrap Bill Turner, as a damned mate on board the Dutchman under Jones (one of the best bits of retconning I’ve seen, to be honest), Liar’s Dice, deals with the devil, yearning for lost love, patently ridiculous and entertaining sword battles, and a giant beast of the sea, the Kraken.
The film really is overlong, but it never loses a desire to entertain. Take the single most excisable sequence in the film: the escape from the cannibal island. It serves little narrative purpose, revealing nothing new of our characters even. It could be pretty hard cut out of the film, having Will arrive on the beach to find the crew trying to get the Black Pearl ready to make sail when Jack comes running around the corner, being chased by a horde of natives intent on freeing him from his mortal coil, and little would have been lost narratively. And yet, I’d never want it cut because it’s fun. The weird toe neckless, the swinging cages made of human bones, the escapes of Jack (running around with a log tied to his back) and the crew (running and rolling through the jungle in the circular cage) are so much fun to watch that getting rid of them simply to adhere to strict narrative discipline would be detrimental to the film experience overall.
The movie is a film of extravagance, taking the huge budget for both sequels and throwing them at the screen in ungainly ways. The designs of Davy Jones and his crew, as men slowly become fish-like creatures the longer they serve before the mast of his damned vessel are amazing in execution and also point to some ideas that percolate just below the surface of the film. If there’s a theme of this film it’s going to be about delay. Elizabeth is driven by the fact that she was denied her wedding night (wink, wink). Will is dealing with the same thing, but also the relationship of his father, broken by his trip to the depths and subsequent impressment on Davey Jones’ ship (a twice cursed pirate father, as one character puts it). Jack is obsessed with delaying his death and, in particular, his promise to serve on Davy Jones’ vessel in exchange for 13 years as the captain of the Black Pearl‘s captain. Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) had his career completely derailed when trying to ruthlessly chase Jack into a hurricane where he lost his fleet, and he’s dealing with that delay, so to speak. None of this is really prominent (it’s an adventurous swashbuckler first and foremost), but I think it speaks to why I like this second film more than the first.
That mostly centers on Davey Jones. Jones is a man who fell in love with a woman who broke his heart. So, he cut out his heart, put it in a box, and sails the seven seas looking for more crew on his undead quest and can’t step on land for ten years. This is the kind of tragic backstory that Barbossa had in the first film, and yet the first film spent so much time on Barbossa’s tragic motivation that it ended up feeling like it was in competition with the rest of the film for central focus. Davey Jones’ motivation is well-defined but takes up less screentime overall, allowing him definition as he moves within the film, providing the right amount of context for his actions without overburdening the film with it at the same time.
That limitation of screentime for Jones’ tragic backstory allows the film to get back to the twisty plot and absurd action, creating a more consistent tone across the body of the film that elevates the whole film into something much more fun. The finale of the film, an extended chase and fight, is the exact kind of exaggerated action that I want from big-budget action filmmaking. I don’t want regular things done fancy, I want absurd things done big. The three-way sword fight between Jack, Will, and Norrington as they fight over control of the key on a beach, up a hill, into the ruins of a church, and then on top of and inside a rolling water wheel is action that’s always changing, never getting boring, and consistently visually engaging.
As much as I enjoy the film, it’s not perfect at all. It really is overlong in ways that don’t always entertain, such as the efforts to get everyone into the same place at the end. It’s determined to make sure it all makes sense, but there are so many moving pieces that it ends up feeling kind of laborious. And, despite my enjoyment of a lot of the action, there really is a lot of it and it can feel extraneous even while entertaining. I think that’s a way of saying that I get kind of antsy in the middle section of the film. However, I kind of love the opening and the closing, finding the overall film a riotous adventure full of swashbuckling worthy of the name.