The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
I first watched this after all of the hoopla surrounding the film had come and gone. I'd already heard that Johnny Depp's Cap'n Jack Sparrow was a character for the ages. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the praise wasn't misguided. I think Depp's Sparrow makes the film - the misuse of the character is one of the reasons I think the sequel doesn't work quite as well, but more on that later.
Jack Sparrow aside, The Curse of the Black Pearl is a rousing, swashbuckling adventure that is loads of fun and doesn't take itself too seriously. Gore Verbinski's dabbled in a bunch of genres successfully, and he finds the perfect balance between comedy and action for an adventure movie. It has an old school vibe to it, with the only incongruous element coming in the form of the CGI 'living dead' creatures which I found to be cartoony, sometimes to the point of distraction. Visually, the film is great to look at, with some nice real world locations and great sets, costumes etc... throughout. There are some exciting and well choreographed swordfights and action sequences without a CGI stunt double in sight.
The story is surprisingly good, with a fair number of twists and turns, and the script does well in setting up some a sense of history for the world it creates. I did feel that it was a tad too long, however. The plot revolves around a mysterious 'ghost' pirate ship, the Black Pearl, whose crew are trying to lift a curse that was set upon them years ago. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), pirate extraordinaire, has a connection with the Black Pearl and her crew, as does William Turner (Orlando Bloom), a young blacksmith. Sparrow and Turner are forced to work together to track down the Black Pearl and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), a young woman who is kidnapped by the crew of the Black Pearl. Hot on their heals are the forces of the British Navy, who are trying to capture Sparrow and rescue Elizabeth.
There are loads of characters who are distinctive and memorable as written (although that has a lot to do with the performances as well), including the comic relief pawns who manage to not only avoid being annoying, but make for entertaining digressions. Again, for an adventure movie there was a near perfect balance of characterization versus action / humour. The humour is well integrated into the situations and the characters such that it rarely feels forced or contrived.
The standouts performances are, without a doubt, Jack Sparrow and the villainous Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), both of whom are effortlessly charismatic and funny. It's Sparrow's film though, and Depp infuses the character with bizarre idiosyncrasies and a sense of foolhardy bravado and amorality that when combined together make for one of the most memorable on screen characters in ages. Orlando Bloom does alright as the do-gooder / straight man Will Turner. Keira Knightley is vivacious as Elizabeth Swann, and she holds her own when engaging in verbal sparring with both Rush and Depp. Oh, and it was nice to see Gareth from 'The Office' getting some work - I'm guessing he put his Territorial Army training to good use.
I wouldn't call it an instant classic, but it's certainly one of the best adventure films in recent times, and it holds up well to repeated viewings. As I've already stated, there are a few missteps that drag it down a notch, but these flaws seem less severe each time I watch the film. All in all, a great piece of cinematic entertainment. Which brings us to the sequel...
Dead Man's Chest (2006)
I'll start off by saying that I don't think it's as good as the first one. With that out of the way, my thoughts on the film. What's good in this film is, essentially, much of what was good in the first one. Once again, Verbinski does a great job with the action / adventure and comedy elements, and the film is visually fantastic - I'd say the effects are considerably better this time round. Davy Jones and his oceanic crew of crustaceans are incredible in terms of design and execution, as is the monstrous Kraken - there are some amazing shots of this mythical beast towards the end of the film. There is also one simply brilliant sequence involving a swordfight on, in, and around a giant mill wheel that has to be seen to be believed.
The story is probably the biggest problem - there's just too much stuff going on, and it's overwhelming at times. There's loads of characters, and a lot of things are going on at once. Character relationships and history are not really reintroduced, the film basically hits the ground running. Familiarity with the first film is, I think, essential. I watched this with someone who needed the occasional explanation as to what was going on, because he hadn't seen the first film in some time; the references to it's predecessor are many.
The plot revolves around a chest belonging to Davy Jones, a squid faced sea monster. Jack Sparrow, the East India Trading Company, Davy Jones, Will Turner, and former Commodore James Norrington are all vying to get their grubby hands on it. Oh yeah, there's also a weird Voodoo priestess and Will Turner's dad who are also in the thick of things. Not forgetting the mostly unnecessary sequence featuring cannibals early on in the film. Oh, and Jack's magic compass, Will's relationship with his father, Elizabeth's relationship with Jack all feature as subplots. I suspect that repeat viewings will be more rewarding as a lot of stuff happens, and it all comes at you at such a relentless pace that it's hard to take in at times. As for the ending, yeah it's a cliffhanger that was somewhat anticlimactic, and I guess the final analysis of this story will have to take the next film into account. I wasn't fully satisfied with the conclusion to this in terms of it feeling like a complete cinematic experience. The Two Towers and The Empire Strikes Back did it better.
The characters are all once again distinctive, though this time out there are just so many of them all jumbled together it's hard for anyone to really stand out. The cast is excellent once more, and I thought that Depp matched his previous performance. The major problem is the fact that Jack's role in this film is smaller than in the first, and his behaviour (as written) is less commanding and fearless. He comes across as a bit of a wuss at times. I suppose you could call it 'characterization' (who wants to see the exact same character again, right? Wrong!), but it reminds me of how Han Solo became a watered down character in Return of the Jedi - it detracts from the film.
The loss of Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa character is felt as well, because there is no strong central villain figure in this film - Davy Jones is menacing but isn't in the film quite enough. Lord Beckett of the East India Trading Company is a shadowy figure in the background who doesn't have much direct impact on events as they unfold. Keira Knightley, fortunately, is even better this time out and brings some much needed energy to the film when Sparrow's character goes off key. Orlando Bloom again doesn't leave that big an impression as Will Turner (nothing against the guy, his Legolas was excellent, and I thought he held his own in Kingdom of Heaven). Turner's dad (Stellan Skarsgard) and the weird Voodoo woman Tia Dalma (Naomi Harris) have only a few scenes but leave a good impression. I'm guessing they'll have more to do in the sequel.
So, it's a good film that has many of the strengths of the first one, but goes a bit overboard and also weakens the main asset of these stories - Jack Sparrow. The plot leaves the audience hanging; as the middle part of a trilogy, it mostly works but doesn't stand on its own legs firmly enough. Viewed together, the films should make a cohesive whole, but for now the jury's still out on how good Dead Man's Chest truly is. Hopefully Jack will be back to his best in At World's End, and the story will be wrapped up in a satisfying manner while tying up all the loose ends. I was satisfied, but not as enthused as the first time round.