So, my second astonishing confession: despite growing up in the 2000s, I have never seen a single Pirates of the Caribbean. Now, I was informed by many to quit after the third, so here’s my round up of the first three: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End.
This is Johnny Depp at his best.
Captain Jack Sparrow will definitely go down as Depp’s defining role. His swagger, eccentric speech and jerky movements, as well as his ‘stray dog’ appearance combined with confusing sex appeal, all contribute to one of the best characterisations in film. Depp also continues to get better and settles into the role as the movies continue. The climax of this is seen in At World’s End, as we are confronted by a whole crew of Captain Jack Sparrows, and witness the inner workings of his mind, which I can only imagine must have been created by a number of hilarious takes in front of a green screen. Sparrow’s unpredictability is often the only saviour for a cast full of predictable characters, and is always the drive of the narrative.
The Curse of the Black Pearl is by far the best of the three.
As is usually the case, the first film of the series has the best bones. It is witty, based on well-developed characterisations and set firmly in an era of chaos. There are recognisable historical elements, which don’t pretend to be factual or accurate, but still set the scene in a context to add to its credibility. The acting, if a little stereotypical, is supremely satisfying and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) makes a superb evil Captain. With great balance in the plot and a good rounded narrative climb, the high production quality is accentuated by impressive CGI, especially the highly convincing undead crew of the Black Pearl. Importantly too, Elizabeth is an interesting female character. She’s not simply ‘the love interest’, but takes on a heroic role with a head-first sassy attitude.
Dead Man’s Chest is by far the worst of the three.
While I adore Bill Nighy more than almost anyone, his portrayal of the villainous Davy Jones was not enough to save a movie that was simply trying far too hard. One real bugbear is the very drawn out fight scene involving a water wheel. Yes, that scene. Who would have thought that I could get bored during a three-way sword fight both on top of and inside a moving water wheel on a tropical island? Yet, somehow it’s possible. As with many of the scenes in this movie, it was too long and convoluted.
Another is the sheer contrast in the ‘bad guys’. The Curse of the Black Pearl was clever, in drawing our attention to the fact that we were rooting for the traditional ‘bad guys’ - the pirates. Norrington was a reasonable man, who enforced the law and adored Elizabeth. There was nothing much to hate about him, aside from the fact that he was against the pirates. It was a refreshing take on the Disney adventure movie, more thought provoking than most. However, as Dead Man’s Chest opens, all of this interest and progress is removed, as Norrington is replaced by a conventional and fairly two-dimensional ‘bad guy’: Lord Beckett. My greatest bugbear, however, is next.
It contains the least convincing love triangle in history.
The love triangle between Elizabeth, Will and Jack in Dead Man’s Chest is the least believable thing I’ve ever watched. The chemistry between Elizabeth and Jack is forced and is really quite uncomfortable. You can’t help but feel someone with no writing experience has stuck their oar in in the writing room, trying to make the plot a little bit more ‘Hollywood’. Knightley does her best to continue to present the gutsy and headstrong Elizabeth, but it’s hard to act with her ferocious loyalty and morality when it's been removed entirely from the script.
Why are they so long?
So, I can see why this is a hugely off-putting fact for many people. With each movie, the running time increases. The first installment was long enough at 143 minutes, but this increases still to 151 minutes and then a whopping 168 minutes. Yes, it’s almost three hours long. There’s no need, there are definitely scenes that can be cut, and you are guaranteed a numb bum by the end. Just as when J.K. Rowling became more powerful than her publishers (basically after Prisoner of Azkaban), they seem to have bypassed the editors.
The East India Company context is really interesting - and very clever.
The use of the East India Company (a huge trading company with its own military and land) as the villains within the movie is complete and utter genius. This is a period of history so often seen as the ‘glory of Empire’, but as we know now, the reality was brutal. This casting will show children and adults an alternative version of this history, with hints to the spices traded, the military leadership and its conquering of the seas.
It’s really funny - in parts.
Some parts of these movies are hilarious - hold your stomach in pain funny. In The Curse of the Black Pearl, Elizabeth’s father and the skeletal hand springs to mind. In Dead Man’s Chest, Elizabeth’s puppetry and creation of a woman’s ghost is incredibly witty. At World’s End contains a beautifully choreographed and hilarious marriage scene, all proving the sparks of genius of the writers. However, there is a distinct feeling of missing the boat at certain points, with forced callbacks to previous jokes as some desperate attempt to be meta. The sea turtle joke becomes tedious and eye-roll worthy, even for the actors performing the lines.
All in all, Pirates of the Caribbean is a mixed bag. Generally I liked it, it’s just that there were some parts that I very strongly disliked and it's often hard to get past those. I feel like it’s probably a marmite franchise - you either really love it, or you’re not that fussed.