The original PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL offered up the unexpected delight of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a joyfully addled pirate redux. He shared top billing with his co-stars, Orlando Bloom as the stalwart Will Turner and Keira Knightly as the plucky Elizabeth Swann, but it was Depp who swept the film into the first ranks of adventure comedies, and in the process swept himself to an Oscar™ nomination. As a result, the sequel, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST, has a great deal to live up to, and it does. But it also doesn’t.
Depp himself is in fine form, this time on the run from Davy Jones (as in the undersea locker) and a pesky promise that he made thirteen years before that has come due. That’s too bad for Will and Elizabeth, who have been plucked from their wedding by their old nemesis Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), and promised the gallows for their part in helping Jack escape if Will doesn’t retrieve a very special compass from the pirate on the lam. Naturally, Will does track him down. As does Elizabeth, despite the distances that were so much vaster when using the available 18th-century technology to traverse them. And just as naturally, things go badly for everyone. Or rather, things get worse and then some.
There is a surfeit of big, billowing special effects as the trio criss-cross the Caribbean in a variety of craft while making trouble for themselves at every port of call. There are so many of them, in fact, that it becomes the cinematic equivalent of buttercream frosting. Very good buttercream frosting, but after a while, and during yet another eye-popping visual, one longs for less bombast on the screen. The first kraken attack is cool, for example, evoking as it does Disney’s previous foray into giant tentacled beasts with the squid in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. The second attack, for all the state-of-the-art effects, just isn’t quite as special, and not just because the closer look at the puckering suckers is somehow unwholesome.
And one longs for more Johnny Depp, the best special effect that any film or audience could ever desire. He follows his own muse, with deadpan timing and a grasp of physical comedy, large and small, that is a wonder to behold. A quick look of bemusement in his black-rimmed eyes, the flashing smile of a brainstorm erupting behind them tells the story of a man who doesn’t let reality get in the way of what he wants, even though his grasp of that reality is tentative at best. In fact, it is not overstating things to say that pretty much anytime the camera is not on Depp, it’s just killing time. This is not the fault of the other actors. Their characters are in as completely different a film as Depp’s Jack Sparrow is in another universe. Knightly is spunky, which is about all that is required of her character. Bloom is fine as the romantic lead, looking storybook pretty and longing appropriately for his lady love. As an action hero, he’s also got the chops, whether swashbuckling with humans, things from Davy Jones’ crew that used to be human, or escaping hungry cannibals while trapped in something resembling a large whiffle ball. It’s just that the script, when Depp is not riffing, is a standard issue seafaring adventure from the 1940s. Its attempts to get mushyare all but unwatchable for all the treacle. And, oddly enough, those would not be the scenes between Will and Elizabeth, but rather in those between Will and his twice-cursed pirate father (Stellan Skarsgard), one of the formerly human members of Davy Jones’ crew on his ship, The Flying Dutchman .
The exception to all this is Bill Nighy, swathed in CGI special effects that have transformed him into a smorgasbord of marine invertebrates with, most notably, an octopus for a face. Yet, he is somehow still recognizably Nighy, and he’s darned funny in the way he brings such commitment, not to mention panache, to the role of someone whose face is mostly prehensile tentacles and a pulsating blow-hole.
One could kvetch about the need for a tighter script, a smaller concept, and a voodoo priestess who spoke intelligibly, but why bother? Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is like a slow boat to China. It takes a very long time to get where it is going (2 ½ hours) and not every moment is thrill-packed, but it’s not without some very nice points of interest that make the effort worthwhile.