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Rated "Ahhrrrrrrr!"

July 11th, 2006

This weekend, Vic and I (along with pretty much everyone else in America, it seems) saw Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. And having done so, I can’t say that I understand the critical backlash that has greeted this installment. Yes, it doesn’t know when to gracefully take its bow, but that was a problem with the first film as well.

I suspect that the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the original was due in part to very low expectations for a theme park ride-based flick, combined with surprise over Johnny Depp’s out-of-nowhere performance as Jack Sparrow. Without those unknown elements, critics began to focus more on the meat of the movie this time around.

Even so, the only real problem I found with Dead Man’s Chest was that, as the second chapter of a trilogy, it lacked resolution. There was a point during its final ten minutes when I realized that the only possible reason for the movie to come to an end would be for the producers to run out of film stock. That’s not really an indictment so much as it is a common symptom of “middle act syndrome.” For my money, a middle act only fails if it leaves me uninterested in seeing the next chapter. That’s definitely not the case. If anything, the jaw-dropping revelation of its final shot left me wanting to see Pirates 3 NOW.

Having seen Superman Returns a second time this weekend leaves me in a good position to compare the two would-be summer blockbusters. Superman is clearly the more thoughtful of the two, but damned if Pirates isn’t a helluva lot more fun. The action is cartoony at times–in one sequence, Jack all but channels Wile E. Coyote–but it fits well within the tongue-in-cheek approach of the franchise. These really aren’t pirate movies as much as they are fantasy comedy-adventures in which pirates happen to play some of the central parts.

Yet Dead Man’s Chest does have a little something going on down in the ship’s hold. The script deliberately points out the moral ambiguity of its characters, especially in the way that it approaches Elizabeth Swann. As with another famous middle chapter, The Empire Strikes Back, a triangle develops between the hero, the virgin and the rogue, but here Elizabeth demonstrates that her attraction to Jack Sparrow may have as much to do with her inner character as with his charm. She takes several questionable actions throughout the course of the storyline, and so the question for Act Three may not be which of the two male leads manages to win her, but which of them she truly belongs with.

Dead Man’s Chest attempts to outdo the original in terms of its fantasy beasties, and I felt it did a wonderful job. Davy Jones is a marvelous creation with an octopus for a head and a crustacean “peg leg.” His minions are equally imaginative, designed to appear as if they have not only mutated into forms of sea life, but have become part of the ocean floor itself. Thus, one pirate has a moray eel floating within its rib cage, and another sports a living coral reef. Then there’s the Kraken, a monstrous, aquatic Sarlacc that’s all teeth and tentacles. While it generally goes without saying these days that the special effects are terrific, I found them especially convincing.

The movie has a welcome dark side. Aside from the threat of our heroes becoming a part of Davy Jones’ terrible crew, there are clever, black-humored moments of horror. When a parrot begins squawking “Don’t eat me!” it’s a funny bit, but soon one realizes the implication of those words spoken by a bird which, by definition, parrots what it’s heard…

In the end, Dead Man’s Chest isn’t the most coherently plotted film, nor does it know quite when to quit, but it’s really hard to dislike a film that offers so many moments of pure popcorn pleasure.

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