Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

In 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl became a surprise hit. Despite being a movie based on a five minute amusement park ride and starring Johnny Depp in a over the top brain-fried pirate role that never should have worked, Pirates inspired a franchise and made Captain Jack Sparrow an icon for generations to come. Dead Man’s Chest marks the return of Captain Jack and the rest of his crew and proves that Curse of the Black Pearl wasn’t just a fluke - Pirates just might be one of the best franchises to set sail in years. Captain Jack Sparrow is back and that means he’s in trouble again. As with Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack’s problems run toward the supernatural. This time it’s not undead pirates after the good captain, but the legendary Davy Jones, a squidlike captain who has come to collect Jack’s soul as payment on a thirteen year old deal. Jack has no intention of handing over his soul too easily however, and jumps between negotiating with Davy Jones for an alternate means of payment and finding a buried treasure of particular interest to Jones – his own still-beating heart.

Jack isn’t the only one after Davy Jones’s heart though. The East India Trading Company has interrupted the wedding of Jack’s former allies, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, arresting them and offering them a pardon only if they help find the pirate and the heart. Davy Jones isn’t exactly open to negotiations either, threatening the Black Pearl with the terror of the seven seas: the kraken! Supernatural ships, monsters of the deep, backstabbing friends, and missing rum – it’s just another day in the life of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Dead Man’s Chest offers up more of the same great material that made the first Pirates movie so enjoyable: primarily Depp’s unlikely hero. I still say his flamboyant, somewhat silly rock-star take on a pirate never should have worked. Somehow, though, Depp brings Sparrow to life in a way that is absolutely addictive, making the audience want to emulate his antics for hours after seeing the film. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly may look stunning (and they do) and bring a nice reality to the movie but it’s Depp’s character that makes this franchise work.

One of the more enjoyable things about Dead Man’s Chest is that it isn’t just a return for Bloom, Knightly, and Depp. Other familiar faces from Black Pearl also return. Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook are back in the comic relief roles they performed so well in the first film. Kevin McNally’s Gibbs returns to delivering exposition to keep the audience up to speed - a role he fills excellently. Most impressive is Elizabeth’s former beau, Norrington (Jack Davenport) who is the only character that really can show any sort of character progress from the last movie. Losing Elizabeth has turned him into a shell of his former arrogant self but makes him an absolute delight to watch.

Not everything is the same as Black Pearl however. Dead Man’s Chest focuses more on the mythos of the pirate world and less on the swashbuckling side of things. This allows the film to add in new characters with the old – most notably Davy Jones (a CG representation of Bill Nighy) and Stellan Skarsgård as the somber Bootstrap Bill Turner (Will’s twice-cursed dad) but may leave some audience members feeling empty if they loved the swordplay more than the undead pirates of the first film. Personally I’m not one of those – I think Dead Man’s Chest has a good mix of action and mythology, but I’ve always been interested in the mythological side of things.

Dead Man’s Chest does have the difficult task of being the second movie in a trilogy that wasn’t planned from the start. Like The Matrix Reloaded and Back to the Future II before it, the film has to serve as a transition that catches the audience up on what has happened to the characters since we saw them last in what was originally a final ending and also set the stage for a third film. It’s a daunting task to set up two more movies in a franchise that didn’t exist when the first film was made but Pirates lives up to much better than other pictures in its position. Still, that weird second film position may leave some people wanting more – especially as the film begins to abandon resolutions in the interests of getting the story set up for the next picture to come.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest recaptures the elements and characters that made the first film so enjoyable and places them in a new adventure that should entertain most fans of the first film. Even if swashbuckling adventure is more interesting to you there is some value in Dead Man’s Chest - with the set up created by the this movie’s ending, the third Pirates picture is almost guaranteed to have something for everyone. Pirates have never been conventional people, so why should we expect the Pirates DVD to be normal? For the first time that I can remember, a major studio DVD offers a raw look at the making of a movie that is less than complementary of everyone, from the film’s audience to the creators themselves.

The two-disc set is laid out in a pretty standard manner – disc one contains the film, a brief gag reel, and a commentary track by the film’s writers. The gag reel contains something new for DVD critics everywhere to complain about – it’s a bonus feature sponsored by Verizon. Why does a bonus feature need to be sponsored – particularly a bonus feature that’s made up of outtakes? Who knows, but it’s there. Expect soon to see deleted scenes with individual sponsors and commentary tracks that spout company slogans and sing jingles in between talking about how a movie is made. The bulk of the bonus materials are located on the second disc of the set, presumably so Disney could market separate single and double disc editions of the movie while only having to mass-produce disc one of this set for both versions.

“Charting the Return” gives a glimpse of the preproduction period on the film – from the decision to create a sequel to Curse of the Black Pearl right up to filming the movie. The half-hour featurette lacks a narrative flow, mostly just revealing problems the movie encountered before the 200 day shooting schedule began. The biggest of those problems? The fact that the writers weren’t writing. The featurette keeps returning to director Gore Verbinski’s difficulty getting a completed script, right down to auditioning using a particularly flat scene that the writers claim was only a placeholder when challenged on their progress. Most big studio DVDs spend a lot of time giving kudos to everyone involved but in this case Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio come across as a bit of the whipping boys for the studio. They get their revenge (of sorts) later on with the film’s commentary track, which does make light of their ability to deliver on the script while also debating whether the audience even understood the story.

The longest of the featurettes, “According to Plan” is an hour long look at the making of the film, which wound up encountering larger problems than just a lack of a script. Locations were difficult to get to, required the cast and crew to travel to strange exotic places that weren’t always pleasant (the documentary opens with a montage of people getting shots and then documents problems with excessive heat) and on top of everything, shooting on water meant the production suddenly found itself susceptible to hurricanes. While the film winds up looking a lot more realistic than the sound-stage based Curse of the Black Pearl, the shoot was complicated drastically by filming on location.

Other featurettes take a more detailed look at specific elements of Dead Man’s Chest. “Captain Jack: From Head to Toe” is a collection of short interviews about all of the elements that make up Jack – from his hat and boots to his teeth and swagger. “Meet Davy Jones” shows just how much (or little) Bill Nighy had to do with the creation of his character in the movie. Although he performed the part the final product in the film is essentially the next evolution of Jar-Jar Binks – a completely CG character, with Nighy acting as the Andy Serkis of the Pirates world. “Mastering the Blade” includes three sections, each of which follow the swordplay of Keira Knightly, Orlando Bloom, or Jack Davenport.

The bonus material goes beyond just the movie, however. Pirates of the Caribbean was a ride before it was a series of movies and recently the ride was updated to include Jack Sparrow, Captain Barbossa, and Davy Jones. A short featurette explains the changes and upgrade of the ride’s sound and shows Depp coming face to face with Captain Jack. Another featurette shows footage from the Dead Man’s Chest premiere at Disneyland.

Dead Man’s Chest takes a more honest perspective showing the movie’s problems in pre-production and filming. At the same time, both this film and the following movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, were shot simultaneously. With no footage included giving any kind of clue about the next movie, I can’t help but feel there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes material missing. If Pirates is really your thing you’ll probably enjoy the packed second disc of the set, but it’s not the kind of material you’ll watch frequently. While I highly recommend the movie, this may be one of those films where the single-disc edition is the way to go for most people.