With the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, it’s worth revisiting the previous films. While the first installment, The Curse of the Black Pearl, is widely regarded as a fabulous film, the reception of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End was less than stellar. I watched them again, and I have to admit, I just don’t understand all the animosity.
Just like On Stranger Tides, if you went into the second and third films expecting a reprise of The Curse of the Black Pearl, you would have been disappointed. However, if you were looking forward to revisiting the characters of the first film and spending more time in that universe, there was a lot to like in these films.
Johnny Depp is fabulous as always as Captain Jack Sparrow, but he portrays Jack with more depth and emotion than in the first film. While the trickster Jack from the first film remains, Depp’s portrayal adds the conflict of a man who realizes he may not live forever. He is torn between the impulse to find love and happiness and the desire to change the circumstances and find the key to immortality.
Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann go through a tortured arc in these last two films, culminating in the tragic ending of At World’s End. Part of the key to enjoying these movies, though, is whether or not you can buy that Elizabeth is willing to leave Will. Her struggle through the films is about her inner desires, torn between her adventurous nature and her love for Will. If you can accept that conflict, then these movies make much more sense.
Similarly, Will is torn between his love of Elizabeth and his sense of duty to his long lost father. In fact, all the main characters are facing this struggle between love and some other force. Even Davy Jones and Tia Dalma struggle with a similar predicament. Only Barbossa and Cutler Beckett, two sides of the same coin, are immune from this struggle. They are polar opposites in station, but the same in their dogged pursuit of their goals.
I’m sure much of the complaint people have with the Pirates sequels is that they are overly burdened with plot lines and confusing twists and turns. There may be truth to that, if you view these movies only one time and aren’t prepared for them. Watching them both in close succession, the plot makes a lot more sense, and you pick up on the little clues throughout Dead Man’s Chest that pay off in At World’s End.
That brings me to the director, Gore Verbinski. In the first Pirates film, Verbinski brought his unique visual storytelling skills to bear with a tightly focused single episode story. In the sequels, the script called for an epic story, and Verbinski stepped up his game as well. The look and feel of the films manages to make the magic feel real, while the camera work and editing allow for the film to breathe and grow throughout the extended run time.
Both the Pirates sequels run for a long time, but they are packed with intricacies that come from painstaking attention to detail. It’s that precise thing that makes them so good for me. No doubt that The Curse of the Black Pearl is a better film overall due to its singular focus. But if you love the Pirates characters, the sequels are great films that allow us to explore the depths of the people we only touched on in the first film, and find out what makes them really tick. That’s something I can always get behind, and it’s something that was lacking from On Stranger Tides.