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Pirates of the Caribbean Pentalogy Reviewed Dead Man's Chest

Against the wind, Gabez is the fastest. That's how he takes his prey.

In some ways, Dead Man’s Chest is a better movie than Black Pearl. The action sequences are bigger, longer, and more impressive. The crew of fish people are graphically superior to the crew of skeletons. The plot is grander, faster, and with more at stake than ever before. The thing is, Dead Man’s Chest does all of this because it is in the shadow of its predecessor; it tries so hard to better Black Pearl that it overdoes things, and the old adage, "less is more," is not adhered to.

It would have been nice to have had just one straight, no extra thrills, sword-fight. Any film in the swashbuckling genre should have at least one of these, before doing something more imaginative. Black Pearl has the scene where Jack and Will first meet – in this sword-fight, lots of tricks and changes of pace are used, but it doesn’t feel gimmicky, because, at the end of the day, they’re just two men having a normal, good old fashioned clash of steel. In Dead Man’s Chest we have to have shaky camera mode on a three-way fight across church ruins and then into a water-wheel that’s spinning down a hill. To quote Shania Twain: "that don’t impress me much."

At least the ship scenes still work. Despite the Flying Dutchman being more supernatural than a night at a haunted house, it still feels like a real ship that could actually exist... again, credit goes to the set builders. That said, I couldn’t help but feel that the fish crew works against the film. They look mighty good, but they take Davy Jones’ uniqueness away somewhat, and, above all, it just seems unnecessary.

IF YOU DISRESPECT OUR SINGING

In Black Pearl, there was a real sense of tension when we had a ship chase from Barbossa and co., because we knew exactly what the threat was. They were pirates. Pirates who couldn’t die, but still pirates. What are fish people? I don’t know, but they sure aren’t as scary as pirates. They don’t seem to have clear limits – they can go anywhere, do anything – and whenever they don’t do something themselves, they just call on the Kraken, which seems a bit of a cheat to me. "Their ship is too fast!" Call on the Kraken. "We can’t be bothered to kill them ourselves!" Get the Kraken. "The lid off the jam jar won’t come loose!" Kraken.

Yikes! Missed opportunity

Davy Jones really does look amazing. He was created with motion capture techniques, with Bill Nighy wearing grey clothes with white patches stuck on the side. Jones’ crew also had to wear similar garments – and if you ask me, they look scarier like that than they do as fish people.

Luckily, Davy Jones is scary enough on his own. If Jack stole Black Pearl, then Davy Jones takes Dead Man’s Chest, being by far the most interesting character (the runner-up being Norrington). Everything about Davy Jones is fantastic: his mannerisms; his voice (that accent!); his cold bulbous eyes that swivel around like a pair of hard-boiled eggs; his tentacles (oh gosh his tentacles!); that sack of gas at the back of his neck that pulsates whenever he gets angry; that unsettling ‘plop’ sound he makes with his mouth whenever he is pensive. I have a recurring dream where he whispers: "weee had an agreementt!" in my ear, and I end up wetting the bed every time. He is that scary. I will never eat squid in the same way again.

He also has a back-story - which is more than can be said for Captain "I have no back-story" Barbossa – and this works pretty well as a sub-plot. We don’t know much about it, but we don’t need to: just have Mr Gibbs rasp "he fell in love with the seeea” and have the tinkle of a music-box play in the background, and "bob’s your uncle, fanny’s your aunt" – you have an endearing vulnerability for the character.

Furthermore, Davy Jones can only step foot on land once every ten years – meaning that he, unlike his blubbering fish crew, has a clear limit, as well as a clear vulnerability (his broken heart). This, I think, makes him scarier – because he is more human. A fish monster is troubling enough, but as soon as you learn that said fish monster isn’t really so different from you and me, it all seems to strike closer to home. All textbook formula for gripping villain character, of course, but why complain when it works so well?

WE WILL FEED YOU TO A KRAKEN

Thumb Dinner
by Ado

Speaking of back-story: does Davy Jones’ history remind you of LeChuck's? They’re both fearsome pirate captains that have had broken hearts follow them into the afterlife – and they’re both scary as heck (well, not so much in CMI and EMI, but ohmygosh, the number of times I screamed during underground tunnels in Mi2...). LeChuck wanting Elaine – and I mean really wanting her, so much that he comes back from the grave – is a gripping idea that could have been explored more in the games. A piece of artwork that has always intrigued me is “Dinner” by Ado – it looks like there is a story and a half to be told with an image like that. Perhaps the next Monkey Island game should be a prequel.

But back-story aside, I always thought that Barbossa was a closer fit to LeChuck than Davy Jones was. Some, however, may disagree. Ron Gilbert has this to say:

"So, I'm looking through my neighbor's window with a pair of binoculars, trying to see the TV to figure out if they have HBO that I can steal when the latest trailer for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie comes on and I'm thinking to myself, "Hey, I've seen this before... no... I've played this before... no... I've designed this before!" I'm thinking "This is the Monkey Island Movie!" Yeah, they kind of screwed up his beard, but that's LeChuck, and let's be honest, if I'd thought of the squid tentacles for a beard, I would have done that."

I don’t know what thought is scarier: LeChuck with a tentacle beard, or seeing Ron Gilbert staring into your living room through a pair of binoculars. Well, at least LeChuck is easily defeated with some root beer; I fear that offering Ron Gilbert root beer would only make him stronger.

A PIRATE I WAS MEANT TO BE

But to return to the film: I said at the start of the review that in some ways <i>Dead Man’s Chest</i> is better than <i>Black Pearl</i>. Gone is the problem of exposition – we already know the characters, and thankfully the film doesn’t waste time introducing them to us again (so if you haven’t seen <i>Black Pearl</i>, you’ll really be lost). With <i>Black Pearl</i>, I thought the beginning and end were the best, with the middle dragging somewhat – this is not the case with <i>Dead Man’s Chest</i>, with every moment leading to something, and action never far away. Watching it again I never felt bored, because I knew there was some cracking scene just around the corner – but that said, none of these scenes, cracking though they were, matched the excitement of <I>Black Pearl</i>’s scenes. If one was to draw a graph of the two films, it might look like this:

The reason for the film’s "flat line syndrome" is partly due to it being one half of a larger story (which will be concluded in the third film), and partly due to plot problems. The whole cannibal section, for example, should have been cut from the script – it’s a lot of fun, but its only real purpose is to reunite Jack and Will together, and surely there are easier ways of getting that done. In addition, the film doesn’t know who it’s main villain is – in my opinion, the role should be taken by Davy Jones, but he doesn’t have as much screen-time as he should; instead, the East India Trading company eat away at his evil presence. It would have been better if Davy Jones was allowed to do his thang, and the East India Trading Company were left out of the picture until the end, ready to be the real villains of the third film, perhaps only hinted at in the mean-time through allusions to off-scene events.

Still, it is nice to have them in the picture at all, even though I preferred the militaristic side of the British Empire. Like I said with Black Pearl, including a historical background, whether it be militaristic or commercial (or a mix of the two), makes the world seem more real, which in turn stops the fantastical elements from floating off into space. People like reality in their fantasy; it helps us believe in what we are seeing.

The Pearl, before and after. Yikes!

What gives?

In the first film, the Black Pearl was this amazing ship of legendary status: stealthy, majestic, and always accompanied with swirling black clouds. In Dead Man’s Chest, it has clumsily patched sails and looks like something your grandmother would sail in to get her groceries.

The Kraken works well – probably because we are introduced to it slowly, only seeing it properly at the very end – and so we think that so allusive a creature really might live in the ocean largely undetected. The most thrilling scene of the film is at the end, where a frantic battle for the Pearl brakes out: pirates versus sea monster. A desperate plan is made to blow the Kraken’s tentacles away with gun-powder. "We only have half a dozen kegs of gun-powder," complains one sailor. "Then load the rum too!" replies Will Turner. The expression on the pirates’ faces is one of sorrow and disbelief. "Aye," says Mr Gibbs at last. "The rum too!" – what really makes the Kraken scene is interchanges like that, which goes to show that the script is still as sharp as it ever was.

Jack’s return, when he shoots the Kraken, is really a return for his character. I was constantly being surprised by his actions in Black Pearl, but this moment, at the end, was the first time I had been surprised by Jack in Dead Man’s Chest. When he shoots the barrels, the music changes, i-Muse style, to a slower “remix” of the main theme – the soundtrack, as well as the dialogue, is as fantastic as ever; though it has to be said, there’s not as much fresh music or lines as I would have liked. Parts of the soundtrack feel like someone has just taken the original score and reordered it slightly; likewise, there are few lines that don’t continue to milk a joke established in Black Pearl.

TRIM THE SAILS AND ROAM THE SEA

Will Turner is still less interesting than a sea-monkey, and Elizabeth still has… that voice... (though my father said that, to his disappointment, Kiera Knightly’s voice sounds less unique now she is older). The love triangle between Jack, Will and Elizabeth is fairly uninteresting, it has to be said; the real love story is between Davy Jones and the mysterious woman who, in the words of the Voodoo Lady, was as "harsh and changeable as the sea" (sounds like a bloody nightmare if you ask me).

Aah, the Voodoo Lady. I half expected her to announce that she had an unbreakable five-film contract. Was she influenced by the character of the same name in the Monkey Island games? Probably not. Terry Rossio, co-writer of the film, said this:

"I read through some of those posts made by people who are familiar with the game (I've not played it, but then, I've not played ANY video game ... I couldn't get past the first challenge of MYST). Anyway, in several posts listed, people said stuff like, ‘Wow, look at the voodoo lady, man, that is so similar, taken directly from the game.’ It seems as though (from what I can glean) that the only similarity between the two characters is that each is a Voodoo Lady."

This is a fair point – Ron Gilbert did not invent Voodoo Ladies; if he did, then he would also be able to sue the cast of Sunset Beach, as well as most of the population of Haiti. As one fan said: "if the video game had originally been titled The Secret of *Undead* Monkey Island, there might be a legitimate gripe."

To conclude: I really enjoyed Dead Man’s Chest - it’s interesting and action-packed and piratey. It doesn’t hold up very well when viewed on its own, and it’s not as good as Black Pearl, but as a sequel, it really isn’t all that bad.

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