The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007)

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), standard pose. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), also standard pose. The "Pirates of the Caribbean" Trilogy.

I. The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

II. Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

III. At World’s End (2007)

Directed by Gore Verbinski. Screenplays by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio. Curse of the Black Pearl screen story by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Music by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Dariusz Wolski. Edited by Stephen E. Rivkin, Arthur Schmidt, Craig Wood. Production designed by Brian Morris and Rick Heinrichs. Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, MacKenzie Crook, Kevin J. McNally, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgård, Tom Hollander, Naomie Harris, Chow Yun-Fat.

Of all the hugely successful film trilogies, Pirates of the Caribbean has always struck me as a little impersonal. That’s probably because, saying this tactfully, the films bear no makers’ mark, and offer no autobiographical impressions. When we watch Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or even The Matrix, we get a strong sense of the people behind the story: George Lucas, Peter Jackson, the Wachowskis. Even Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films (which the Pirates movies kinda resemble) gain something when you read Raiders of the Lost Ark as the work of an overgrown kid who wants to blow up some Nazis. The Pirates trilogy (which has just this weekend moved into the start of a second trilogy) is, on the other hand, a piece of pure product: corporate-driven and workmanlike. For heaven’s sake, it’s based on a theme park ride and intended to sell toys. That’s why for the new film, On Stranger Tides, I couldn’t care less about the change in directors from Gore Verbinski to Rob Marshall, because it absolutely makes no difference: the only artistic vision in a Pirates of the Caribbean film is that of the Walt Disney Company prettying up its coffers.

That said, fun is fun. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, still stands tall as a terrific entertainment. That’s due to the performances by Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush, the assured staging by director Verbinski, and the screenplay by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, which pulls off the nifty trick of moving straight forward, commenting on itself, and then doubling back on itself, all at the same time. The script is really quite clever, especially in the way it teases our understanding of each character’s motivations. One of the great joys of Curse of the Black Pearl is the way it keeps us guessing about what side Jack Sparrow (Depp) is on. Jack, who has one of the great movie entrances of all time riding on the masthead of a sinking dinghy, ultimately proves to be a master of both improvisation and crafty planning. It’s fun in the end to track what we finally learn about him against his every action and realize that yup, it has a logic to it. It’s disorienting, but never confusing, if that makes any sense. It’s no surprise Elliot and Rossio were behind the screenplay, because the same pair wrote another one of the great recent swashbucklers, Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro, which, again, was better crafted than it had any right to be.

Another one of the film’s neat touches is how it contrasts the British colonial lives of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) with that of pirates, and contrasts them again with the evil crew of Capt. Barbossa (Rush), who in the moonlight are revealed as cursed, rotted skeletons. There is a care in the film for the realistic aspects of the material: note the loving emphasis on naval traditions and the strategies of combat. It sets up Will as a heroic blacksmith not just to establish the class difference standing between him and Elizabeth, but to give us the image of him surrounded by swords, the very identities of other people in this world, with none to call his own. And it’s nice that Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), Elizabeth’s suitor, is set up as the wrong man for the girl, but also a competent seaman, since the quasi-realistic depiction of the British navy lends more tension to the confrontation with the ghost pirates.

But what is most pleasing about Curse of the Black Pearl is that it reactivated a dormant movie tradition, the pirate film, which had previously been dead in the water. Before Pirates the most recent attempt at a movie like this had been Cutthroat Island (1995), which cast Gina Davis and Matthew Modine as swashbucklers, for reasons no one can really determine. That film failed because it was a genre exercise that never went to the next level. Pirates, on the other hand, has a brio that transcends expectations for pirate movies, keeping everything lighthearted, witty and fun, while supplying cute scene-checks for not just the original Disneyland attraction but also classic films in the genre like Treasure Island and The Crimson Pirate. The filmmakers show they are conscientious of previous entries in the genre, and display a hunger to both honor the past and rise above it.

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t go on a little too long. The Curse of the Black Pearl is a very busy movie that unfortunately drags towards the end: after a while we simply reach our capacity for pirate swordfights and supernatural creepiness; the ending battle need not lasts as long as it does.  And just when we think it’s over, it starts up again with one final daring escape for Jack Sparrow, which is necessary for the plot, but since composer Klaus Badelt scores every single action beat in the movie with the same music, it gets to be a little deadening. Still, it leads to a nice finale where dreams are fulfilled, wrongs are righted, and more characters than we expect reveal their true colors. Walt Disney would be proud. Good movie.

Then they made two more.

Everything that is wrong about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is demonstrated by the fact that you have to talk about both of them at the same time. Unwisely, Disney decided to fast track their Pirates sequels by filming both of them back-to-back as part of one sprawling epic story involving voodoo priestesses, disembodied hearts, prehistoric monsters, a mythological villain who enslaves men and turns them into sea creatures, lost souls, imprisoned goddesses, Keira Knightley’s girlish whimper, annoying accents, Will Turner’s father, trips to the afterlife, multi-ethnic Pirate summits, huge-scale battles, pieces of eight, Orlando Bloom’s girlish whimper, etc. The villains are the tentacle-faced Captain Davy Jones (played jointly by Bill Nighy and scores of very talented chaps at ILM) and the dull-as-dishwater Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), CEO or whatever of the East India Trading Company. The locations are numerous islands, the open sea, the deck of the Flying Dutchman, Singapore, the great beyond, the Arctic Circle, etc etc etc. The scope is massive. The amount of money that was spent is staggering. The overall effect is aggressively numbing. The sequels eschew the believable aesthetic of the first movie, now dropping us into a huge fantasy universe with its own impenetrable rules. It’s big and expensive and a little stupid, and none of it adds up to a damn thing.

The two-part sequel idea is not inherently a bad one, but it still requires a great deal of structure. Take The Empire Strikes Back, for example. Does it end in midstream? Yes, in the greater scope of things. But it also tells a story in and of itself. Even Back to the Future Part II and The Matrix Reloaded, to an extent, realized the importance of making your sequels distinguishable from each other. Pirates 2 and 3, on the other hand, are so plot-driven and busy that there’s no shape to either of them. In movie two, a lot of things happen, and in movie three, the rest of the things happen. The characters are reduced to game pieces moving on a very complicated board, and so no emotional catharsis is available that could supply meaning to any of this. It’s tiresome. And also very very dark, as if the filmmakers’s solution to any doubts about the project was to throw in some more sturm und drang.

Like The Matrix Revolutions, At World’s End is the worst kind of sequel, one that retroactively makes the previous film worse. This is ultimately the danger in crafting a two-part story in film; by delaying any payoff until the second half, you run the risk of frustration and accusations of fraud when your finale fails to deliver. Taken on its own, Dead Man’s Chest is a fine if over-indulgent piece of summer movie spectacle; it’s when you combine it with At World’s End that everything falls apart. That’s because the second movie is rife with irrelevant set pieces and asides that are complicit in delaying the story’s end. When movie three collapses under the weight, the confidence with which those distractions were presented now comes across as a smug con.

Unfortunately, Elliot and Rossio were under such pressure to deliver scripts for this massive undertaking that they let their craftsmanship slip, and it shows. Instead of harnessing their characters, they focused on the schematic aspects that worked so well for them in the first movie. Indeed, there’s something initially cute about watching them jury-rig a trilogy by using elements that were meant to be self-contained when they wrote movie one. But what they forget is to move past that and to give us a reason to care. To dial down the orgy of special effects and instead make this actually about something besides vague platitudes encapsulating half-hearted ideas of sacrifice and redemption.

Yes, some of it is very clever, and some of the action set-pieces are astonishingly well-produced, but so what? There are stabs at substance within Will’s attempts to save his indentured father (Stellan Skarsgård) from Davy Jones’ crew, but nothing much comes of it besides the careful implenetation of plot points. Jack is given his own arc that sinks him into a morass of selfishness before finally coming out to do a heroic deed, but then it’s stolen from him for the simple fact that he’s now the star of this franchise, and therefore not expendable, which is a huge cheat. Even the throughline that should be the trilogy’s most satisfying, Elizabeth’s journey from governor’s daughter to pirate queen, feels like the tedious ticking off of checkboxes, not an organic payoff for the character.

There are other issues, too, since At World’s End climaxes with one of those apocalyptic battles we see in the movies countless times as fleets battle  under a raging storm. The film basically acknowledges at this point that it has too many pieces on the table, which is why when the unified pirate army and the British navy square off, what it ultimately comes down to is two individual ships battling on the lip of a whirlpool, while the other ones stay on the sidelines and do nothing, practically forgotten. I agree that a hundred-ship melee might get confusing, but all those plot gymnastics to set up the Brethren Court of Pirates, and what comes of it? Nothing.

And then Jack, Will, Elizabeth and Will’s father all have to have a swordfight with Davey Jones, because you can never have too many swordfights, right? And then…and then…and then… As far as naval combat climaxes go, none of this convoluted nonsense can hold a candle to the finale of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. That film had strategy and weight to its action sequences, but this one’s kitchen sink mentality is cartoonish. The sequels put a lot of information on the screen in order to justify its plotting, but the one thing they utterly fail to explain is why this paper-thin story needed five hours and twenty minutes in order to be told.

Let’s think about this: movie three begins with a trip into the afterlife to rescue the soul of Jack Sparrow. That feels like the game-ender to me, but no, as soon as that’s over (after a lengthy and pointless Terry Gilliam-inspired multiple-Jack sequence) we’re right back to the human-level betrayals and plotting and jokes and explanations and Brethren Courts and dialogue and get the hell on with it! The middle portion of At World’s End is some of the most boring action-adventure filmmaking you’ll ever see. Imagine a version of Return of the Jedi where Han and Leia go back to their petty bickering after escaping Jabba’s palace, and then we spend an hour watching every second of Admiral Ackbar’s mission briefing. Come to think of it, Admiral Ackbar may be a more attractive companion than Keith Richards, who shows up here in a mildly amusing cameo.

What ultimately scuppers the Pirates sequels is a total lack of stakes. The filmmakers’ desire to make the series more magical is workable in concept, but they should have known when to say when; we get no sense of scale or grandeur, just one “cool” idea after the other, laid on thick like multiple coats of lacquer. None of the fantasy elements are allowed to sink in because we’re always moving to the next one; the films are so jam-packed with incident and exposition and gags and distracting accents that nothing is allowed to breathe. Even the voyages at sea are unbelievable, with every character speeding around the Caribbean as if someone went forward in time and brought back boat motors for everyone.

It all smacks of gimmickry, and the constant exposition by Kevin J. McNally as Jack’s sidekick Mr. Gibbs feels like little more than an attempt to distract us from how arbitrary all of this is. The pieces try hard–very hard–to fit together, but all the screenwriter pixie dust and krazy glue in the world can’t convince you that any of this coheres. By the time the goddess Calypso is freed from her human body and grows into a 50-foot giant, you shake your head at the greedy storytelling on display. In this movie, anything can happen. ANYTHING. So who cares what happens? A fantasy needs rules, and not ones that are made up as it goes along.

At the center of all three films is Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, and it’s a scene-stealing performance of the highest order. But even Depp, too, suffers as the movies go on. He falls under the fatal illness that occurs when a movie’s breakout star is brought back for a sequel, and now things are expected of him. In Curse of the Black Pearl he is more reserved and subdued, and has flashes of surprise and doubt. In the sequel films, every moment seems designed to be a Jack Sparrow comedy bit, from his facial expressions and body language down to his every line of dialogue, even the ones that are meant to be sincere. It’s the same problem that plagued Iron Man 2 when it brought back Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. There’s a difference between a character who is spontaneous and funny versus one who feels over-rehearsed to be so, and I think that’s the issue here. Depp remains entertaining, but not on the same level, and it’s not surprising that he is remarking during press trips for this fourth film that he is a smidge tired of the character, because by now there is little character left for him to play, just stock mannerisms.

As for the other actors, they do what they can. I am not the world’s biggest Orlando Bloom fan, but he is fine as Will Turner. Nothing special, just fine. Same with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann, which feels a bit of a waste, because Knightley has shown brighter in other projects. I fear that she will become the Alec Guinness of this property, remembered best for these Pirate movies and not for the other, smaller films where she gives more nuanced and interesting performances. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

The technical credits are impressive. The music by Hans Zimmer (taking over for the first film’s Badelt) grows bolder and more exotic as the series progresses, with At World’s End fulfilling the music afficianado’s nightmare: it’s a great score for a bad film. The movies look great, although that’s to be expected for a big-budget Disney production set in the Caribbean; I wish the finale of the third film had reveled in a little less fog and rain, because it’s another distraction on top of distractions on top of distractions. But I guess that strategy pretty much sums of the raison d’être of the whole series, so there you go.

All of this is moot anyway, because the Pirates films made a kajillion dollars with a fourth movie now in theaters. As marketing opportunities for Walt Disney Pictures, they’re terrific. As movies they’re less so, but perhaps that’s because we got our hopes up to begin with. This is a series based on a theme park ride after all. It’s whole point of existence is to sell things. The fact that one of them is a good movie is entirely inconsequential; at the end of the day, they’re product. Pure and simple. Product from one division designed to sell another. Synergy, they call it. There’s another, less polite word for it as well, but I shan’t use it. That kind of language is a little bit too ARRRRRR-rated.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl GRADE: B+

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest GRADE: C

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End GRADE: D

CUMULATIVE: C+

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