Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

[from July 16, 2006]

I love storytelling. I love that it can be done in lots of mediums, but one of my favorite mediums (other than cinema, obviously) is oral tradition storytelling. The National Storytelling Convention happens every year in Jonesborough, TN, and my family tries to go regularly (though not successfully for a few years). I love listening to these professional storytellers spin their yarns and hold audiences for hours at a time.

Ted Elliott said the following about he and Terry Rossio writing the first movie: "We wanted to have moments where people told stories ... about their lives, about their backgrounds, about other characters..." Something I dearly love about these movies is that they remind me of stories that might have passed down through oral tradition. I can totally picture someone (whether 300 years ago or today) telling these pirate stories. I can picture people sitting around a campfire listening to the story of Captain Jack and how he got his ship back after a mutiny, with the help of a plucky blacksmith and the feisty object of his amour. The details of the story probably change depending on who's telling the tale. If there ever was any truth to the story, it has been exaggerated again and again, often to the point of the ridiculous. And there are probably tangents that don't really further the story, but are fun nonetheless. That's very much how I see the first movie, and I think Dead Man's Chest continues most admirably in that tradition.

I can barely express how much I love this movie. It's actually quite different from the first movie (despite the occasionally ponderous references to it). It's a good bit darker, it goes a good bit deeper into the plot and characterization, and the humor largely comes from the action this time instead of witty dialogue. The Ain't It Cool News boys have branded this as the "Empire Strikes Back" of the Pirates franchise, and I agree in terms of tone. But in terms of its role in the story as a whole, this comparison to the LOTR world is even more apt, because it's not just continuing the story and setting up a cliffhanger. It's taking a smaller story and creating a mythology for it.

So where do I start? I suppose the beginning of the film is the best place. The ruined wedding. The torrential rain that seems to permeate the entire film, both literally and figuratively. This opening, like the first scene of Black Pearl, sets the tone for the rest of the film (Also, like the first film, it all begins with Elizabeth - I'm wondering if that means something in the scope of the films, but I digress). This is going to be less pirate lore and adventure on the high seas (though still quite a bit of that), and more emotion, character development, and obstacles for ... well, everyone.

Will Turner - Harry Knowles calls him "the Ronald Reagan character," and I can totally see that. He's the nice, good guy who's usually kind of boring, but usually gets the girl. Of course Orlando Bloom is nice to look at, so it wouldn't really matter if he was boring. I saw him as a bit dull in the first movie myself, but I think that was just how his part was written. Straightforwardly good people just come across that way, no matter who is playing them. This time around, though, the part gets juicier and Bloom really sinks his teeth into it. His best stuff is in the scenes with Bootstrap Bill (Stellan SkarsgÄrd). He's especially strong in the dice-rolling scene. The whipping scene is just brutal (I felt kind of guilty drooling over wet, shirtless Will there :P). And the last few scenes, where he reacts to Elizabeth apparently (I'll get to that in a bit) falling for another man, are GOLD.

Elizabeth Swann - I really loved how Keira Knightley played her in the first movie. She could very easily have been a generic pretty face, but there's a lot more depth (and quite a dark side) to her than that. Ted and Terry obviously had a great deal of fun writing Elizabeth this time. I love what an absolute mess she is. That whole pouting scene on the island ("Oh! Oh! The heat!" *pretends to faint*) is just all kinds of awesome. From a very young age, she's been fascinated with pirates, and now she's pretty much become one. I feel sure that her character arc in At World's End will at least partly involve the psychic consequences of essentially killing Jack. And then there's-- no, I'm not ready for the shipping yet. :P

Pintel and Ragetti - the unsexy pirates, and a large source of non-Sparrow comic relief ("I could be in the circus!"). I'm glad we got to see what became of them (though I'm sad not to have seen their Royal Navy counterparts, Murtogg and Mullroy, in this one). They're the leftovers from Barbossa's crew, left to fend for themselves and make it as best they can. They strike me as the Peter Pettigrews of piracy, who don't care much what side they're on, as long as they're on the right end of a blade. I loved the little scene during the three-way sword fight when they explain each of the guy's motives for wanting the chest, and one of my favorite parts of the whole movie is when the two of them and Elizabeth are trying to fight Davy Jones' crew with two swords between them ("Sword!" "Sword!")

Gibbs - one of my favorite characters of the first film that didn't get as much of a character arc this time. But he's fun nonetheless, and out of the whole cast, he's the one who sounds most like a pirate. Well, he and Barbossa. :)

Norrington - Oh my. I loved him in the first one, but man oh man did he turn into a badass hottie! So much love. I was so worried when I heard about one of the scenes he was in that he was just going to be in one or two scenes, all miserable and emo because Elizabeth left him. But I couldn't be happier with the role he was given in this story. I *LOVE* that he was the one who absconded with the heart to buy back his life.

Barbossa - There is but one word for his appearance in this film, and that is, of course, "ZOMG!"

Cutler Beckett - I love Tom Hollander. I like him more as a sympathetic character, such as he played in Gosford Park, but he does make a great baddie. He doesn't try to make it over-the-top; he just plays it as bland, bureaucratic, and very real Evil. That takes talent.

Davy Jones - the other kind of evil, naturally. :P I love what the CG guys did with him, and Bill Nighy is just superb. I love his weird brogue, and the way he emphasizes the ends of words ("Ninety-nine sow-uhlzzzz-AH"). He's got a kind of Sean Connery lip waggle going that I loved. And the scene where he's playing the organ is just the coolest.

Tia Dalma - I have to say that she was possibly my favorite part of the whole movie. I sort of cringed at the little clip I saw in the trailer, thinking this was going to be a cartoonish "islander" stereotype. But this woman is amazing. Her look is perfect, her voice is perfect, and she loves her some pirate booty, nudge nudge, wink wink. :P I can't wait to see what part she has to play in bringing Jack back "and him precious Pearl." And speaking of Jack...

Jack Sparrow - I'm always concerned when actors come back after a little break to a character that is as well-loved as Jack. So few actors have the ability to be consistent in later films. They either lose the charm of the original character or they're trying too hard and step into the realm of self-parody. But I feel like Depp just picked right back up where he left off with Jack. And luckily the writers gave him lots more to dig into instead of relying purely on the audience's love for the character to carry the movie. Here we see a little bit more of Sparrow's bad side - his cowardice and selfishness most of all. This film was clearly the slough in his character arc, and he'll come out in At World's End with some heroic gesture to finish things off. I mean, just look at that last scene he's in. I wanted to jump up and down and yell "JOSEPH CAMPBELL! BELLY OF THE BEAST, YO!"

Yeah, it's kind of convoluted. There's a lot of stuff going on and it will probably take several viewings (shucky-darn!) to get it all. But I don't think it's too tortuous. There are a lot of characters with a lot of different motives. And don't even get me started on the complaints that it's too long. I don't mean the comments that the first section drags - those opinions are more than valid, even if I don't feel the same way. I mean the very idea that anything longer than 2 hours is "too long." Dude, most people pay as much as $10-15 per ticket, and critics complain that they're being given too much???

Technical Stuff
If this movie doesn't win a Visual Effects Oscar, I'm going to be upset. The first movie had to compete with Return of the King, but there's no reason it can't win something this time. The animation of Davy Jones alone is worth some Oscar gold. My favorite effect is the guy who's grown into the side of the Flying Dutchman.

The Action
Yeah, it's fairly absurd most of the time. The bone cage, the shish-kabob, the shell-head pirate, the mill wheel, etc. To me, this goes back to these movies' resemblance to the oral tradition tales. I just imagine someone telling this story and what, in a real story, might have been someone falling off a mill wheel in the middle of a sword fight becomes an elaborate 12-minute farce that's packed with physical impossiblities. Much like Gibbs and the story of how Jack got off the island via sea turtles.

Also, I can't help remembering while watching that this whole story is based on a theme park ride. A ride that the writers each rode 100 or so times. Ted & Terry seem to treat these movies as a ride, in a way, pulling the audience wherever they want them to go. I think that's a big thing that makes the movies so fun and what bothers the people who don't like them.

The Shipping
Okay, here we go. Let me start by saying that I'm positive that Will and Elizabeth will get their happily ever after. What happened in Dead Man's Chest was an obstacle to their eventual reunion - one that will begin a stronger relationship between them. Having said that, however, this is the only love triangle I can think of that I've ever actually enjoyed. I *love* the Jack/Elizabeth sideline, and I think it makes all three of their characters a lot more interesting in relation to each other.

So ... here's how I see it. Will loves Elizabeth. No, scratch that. Will loves the idea of Elizabeth. He's put her up on a pedestal, in a lot of ways, and she doesn't really belong there. Well, no woman does, really, but ... who Elizabeth really is, what we learn of what she's really like deep down, doesn't match the ideal of her that Will spent much of his life building. Sometimes, in a situation like this, the seedier parts of someone's character come out of their own accord. But in Elizabeth's case, and the more to cause pain for Will, this side of her character is largely drawn out by another man.

Jack Sparrow does not love Elizabeth. He is certainly drawn to her in a basic heterosexual sense. There's a strong tendency, especially in women (or maybe it's just me :P), to feel sympathy for this kind of character, in romance terms. I mean, why does the girl have to end up with the "Ronald Reagan" character? Doesn't Jack deserve some lovin'? The answer is that deserving love is beside the point. Elliott and Rossio, like many writers and filmmakers, have been inspired by the Sergio Leone model, and Jack (as well as Barbossa) are in the "god" role. Gods don't have the same kinds of stories as the mortals who surround them. They don't fall in love, and they don't get the girl. They just don't need to.

Elizabeth loves Will. No doubt about it. She has feelings for him that she'll never have for Jack. But I think she also has feelings for Jack that she'll never have for Will. I agree with those who have said that being robbed of her wedding night has a bit to do with it. She's horny and Jack represents the freedom she wants. It's not surprising that this translates into some chemistry. Not to mention a kiss that's as hot as a supernova. And no, I don't think Elizabeth kissed Jack just to distract him so that she could shackle him to the ship. There's a distinct moment after they break apart where she leans in to kiss him again but stops herself.

Is that kiss a threat to Will's and Elizabeth's relationship? Sure it is. That's why it's there, to provide an obstacle. I think the next movie will explore the distrust that kiss created, and Elizabeth may have to "win" Will back, as it were.

HOWEVER... if this weren't Disney and Jack weren't the Leone "god" character, I would SO be predicting a menage a trois between these three characters. I mean, they're PIRATES. Hang the social mores!

The Bottom Line
I really, really love this movie. I think this may rank even higher than the first movie. Yeah, I've got a couple of complaints, but they're WAY overshadowed by all the stuff there is to love. I can just feel the geekish glee emanating from the screen as I watch it. And what I probably love *best* about it is that it started as a theme park ride ... then it was made into a hugely successful film whose star was nominated for an Oscar ... and now with the second film it has become a full-fledged hero myth. This is very much the kind of story that could have been passed down by oral tradition, much like the songs in the Tolkienverse that told of the epic adventures of hobbits in Middle Earth. And what I find the most satisfying is that my affection for these movies is shared by many of the same people who share my affection for LOTR and HP - and that now our Pirateverse is becoming so rich in the mythology and worldbuilding (and theorizing!) that we love so much about those other works.

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