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Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest Arrrg-ives on DVD

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Whether or not you enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest really depends on what exactly you demand from a pirate movie. Given the spotty success record Hollywood has had with pirate films in the recent past, and the mediocre reviews Pirates II received when it was initially released in theaters, it seems that many American film reviewers have very particular demands from a film about rogues upon the sea. I was inspired to peruse pirate movie reviews of yore and came up with an interesting representation:

Pirates (1986 Dir: Roman Polanski)

The movie bogs down in a hopeless quagmire of too much talk, too many characters and ineptly staged confrontations in which everyone stands around wondering what to do next. – Roger Ebert

Hook (1991 Dir: Steven Spielberg)

Poignancy. Lessons to be learned. Speeches to be made. Lost marbles to be rediscovered. Tears to be shed. The conclusion of "Hook" would be embarrassingly excessive even for a movie in which something of substance had gone before. – Roger Ebert

"Hook" is overwhelmed by a screenplay heavy with complicated exposition. - Vincent Canby

Cutthroat Island (1995 DIR: Renny Harlin)

It doesn't transcend its genre, and it's not surprising or astonishing. I saw it because that was my job and, having seen it, I grant its skill…But unless you're really into pirate movies, it's not a necessary film. – Roger Ebert

The most punishing aspect of “Cutthroat Island'' is that it just wears down the viewer with a helter-skelter, needlessly overblown quality. No wonder those old pirates didn't survive — they were too tired from so much hyperactivity. – Peter Stack

Pirates of the Caribbean-Dead Man’s Chest (2006 DIR: Gore Verbinski)

Too long, unnecessarily complicated and often silly. – Jack Matthews

There's nothing so tedious as nonstop excitement. -Stephanie Zacherek

Is that now perfectly clear? A pirate movie needs to be fast-moving and exciting, without tedious and complicated exposition, although it should transcend its genre and refrain from tedious nonstop excitement and needless overblown hyperactivity. Clearly, it should surprise and astonish but avoid silliness, because piracy is a damn serious business, and honestly none of it really matters unless you’re really into pirate movies.

With these clearly delineated standards to follow it's amazing Disney green lighted (green lit?) the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Obviously the film criticism community hadn’t reviewed these standards when they were reviewing the first one, since it received near universal acclaim. I believe a good deal of that approbation came out of the surprise factor. Before it was released, Pirates had that kind of worried buzz that surrounded Titanic before it swamped us all.

It was an expensive special effects-laden action movie starring Johnny Depp, who had spent most of his career demolishing his non-indie film cred. Clearly studio heads were nervous about his performance and there were lots of worried articles about arguments over Depp’s dental work to make his teeth look pirate-y, a clear sign of a studio desperate to diminish expectations. The movie was based on a Disneyland ride, for chrissake.

In fact it was part of a master plan by Disney to launch film series based on three of their amusement park rides. The other two rides were The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion. Unless you have kids (and even if you do) you have no reason to remember either of these films. Haunted Mansion was one of those Eddie Murphy vehicles the reviews of which mostly centered on the theme “remember when Eddie Murphy was funny?” The Country Bears, based on Disney’s animatronic banjo-playing bears stage show, got such universally wretched reviews that I actually seriously considered not buying it for the Library system, unprecedented for a Disney film.

The result was that most reviewers were completely stunned to find the first Pirates to be utterly entertaining. Johnny Depp was epic as Jack Sparrow, a booze-soaked scalawag with his brains scrambled from too much rum, sun, and the lash (as opposed to the classic British Naval recruitment promise of “rum, buggery, and the lash”, this being Disney and all). Was there a plot? Can you remember it? Come on. Be honest. No, you can’t. You remember being entertained. You remember something about a pearl (but only because it was in the the title), or a boat, or a chest of gold, and half-dead ghosts, and Keira Knightly’s bosom and Orlando Bloom’s swashbuckle, a talking parrot, and a cheeky monkey.

[Ooh! Sudden inspiration for updating the Scientology wedding vows… "girls need tender care… a swashbuckle, a talking parrot, perhaps a cheeky monkey." Oh yeah. Sign me up!]

But I digress. Pirates of the Caribbean II has all of these things. It has a boat, a chest, a bosom, lots of swashbuckle, a talking parrot, a cheeky monkey, and an intrepid dog. It also has a compass, a key, cannibals, a voodoo queen, and the evil kraken. It has even more awesomely evil bad guys than the first one. In human form the British Navy is replaced by The British East India Company, which hasn’t had a good starring evil role in simply centuries and more’s the pity. Forget Enron and Halliburton. The British East India Company invented uber-national corporate malfeasance. In supernatural form it’s Davy Jones and his minions who are a special effects masterpiece: living, walking, talking, growing coral reefs in human form. Utterly gross, scary, and fun.

Orlando Bloom. What a name. Now that the days of sexy bad boy poets have gone, what else could the poor boy do but become an actor? Orlando does a masterful job at whatever it is he’s supposed to do. Keira Knightly wields her sexy so fiercely I worried someone might lose an eye, although clearly the teenage boys in the audience did not mind. Spoiler alert! There’s a cliffhanger ending, which means you’re going to have to come back next year to discover how it all turns out. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it’s not with them all dead by suicide pact at the bottom of the sea. After all, this is Disney and Disney knows that the ride is crap unless you exit panting to stand in line to ride it again.

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