By most estimates, 2011’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the most expensive motion picture ever made. Disney found a way to blow something in the neighborhood of $400 million on the fourth movie in its Pirates Of The Caribbean series. (Some observers have speculated that Avatar cost even more than that, but Fox always flatly denied those claims.) When you see a budget like that, you expect either a monumental success or a monumental failure—a Titanic or a Waterworld. But Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is neither of those. It came out 10 summers ago, earned a quiet billion dollars on the global market, and then disappeared from the collective memory. Even after costing all those hundreds of millions, On Stranger Tides brought in a tidy profit, and then nobody ever mentioned the movie again.
This has long been the way for the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies: Every few years, a Pirates film comes out, costs a lot, earns even more, and leaves no cultural footprint. The franchise does especially well abroad, and it’s apparently impervious to shifting tides. Allegations of spousal abuse were enough to get Johnny Depp fired from the Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them franchise, but he keeps making Pirates flicks. Right now, there are five Pirates pictures in existence. There’s another sequel being planned, as well as a possible reboot with Margot Robbie replacing Depp. It’s an unkillable property, one that’ll presumably keep numbly thundering away as long as the planet still has operational movie theaters.
It wasn’t always this way. The first of the franchise, 2003’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl, was an unexpected summer delight. The entire idea seemed ridiculous: A movie based on an amusement park ride? With Johnny Depp playing a pirate captain? In a summer full of loud and effects-heavy sequels? (Disney had previously turned two other theme-park attractions into movies. Those movies, Mission To Mars and The Country Bears, had been failures.) But Pirates was a genuinely fun grand-scale old-school adventure flick, and Depp’s gargling elocution and cockeyed shuffle seemed like subversively silly decisions in a summer when many of the big movies (The Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3, Hulk) were oddly solemn and philosophical.
In retrospect, it’s amazing how well everything worked on that first Pirates. If the movie was just people swordfighting and swinging around on riggings, it might be an all-time classic. Instead, Pirates picked up on the fantastical tone of early-’00s blockbuster movies, adding lots of CGI ghosties and arcane sorcery. Even with all that, the film never quite lost the antic tone of its great early scenes. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio had already scripted blockbuster fare like Aladdin and Shrek, and they’d also written 1998’s The Mask Of Zorro, another great swashbuckling studio adventure. Director Gore Verbinski had started out making TV commercials and videos for punk bands like NOFX and Bad Religion, and he’d gone onto confidently and competently helm studio joints like Mouse Hunt and The Ring. Johnny Depp had done nearly two decades of loopy character-actor-as-leading-man stuff. Orlando Bloom had been dashingly dreamy in the Lord Of The Rings series. Keira Knightley was still a literal teenager, but she’d already starred in Bend It Like Beckham. This was a team of professionals. Tasked with turning a boat tour through Audio-Animatronic dioramas into a big summer movie, they overperformed.
That first Pirates pulled in more than $300 million, which was enough to make it the No. 3 movie of 2003. (Only The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King and Finding Nemo did better.) Pirates also got Johnny Depp his first-ever Oscar nomination—the kind of institutional respect that summer popcorn movies are rarely afforded. (Depp lost to Mystic River’s Sean Penn; given the nominees, he should’ve lost to Lost In Translation’s Bill Murray. Since then, Depp has been nominated twice more. He’s never won.)
Given that surprise success, a Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel was a no-brainer. Instead, Disney made two, greenlighting a pair of new Pirates films and planning to shoot them back-to-back. Disney brought in the same team who’d made the first Pirates and gave them a bigger budget, and they went in heavy on the daffy physical comedy and the supernatural seafaring CGI of the original. The second Pirates would have more wisecracking, more swordfighting, and more wet monsters than the first. It would have a kraken, a voodoo witch, a guy with a hammerhead shark’s head, and a couple of cages made out of human bones dangling over a ravine. (It’s amazing that anyone still thought the deeply racist cannibalistic-islander-savages trope was still okay in 2006, but there it was.) Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest would have more everything. This was one of its problems.
Perhaps because it was knowingly building up to another sequel, Dead Man’s Chest has none of the narrative momentum of the first Pirates. The plot is busier and dumber. Even though the story mostly exists to get us from one breathless set piece to the next, it also asks us to care about things like the buccaneering family history of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner. (This leaves poor Stellan Skarsgård attempting to emote with barnacles glued to his face.) Dead Man’s Chest also runs two and a half hours, and it gives us an ending where everyone agrees to go rescue the soul of Captain Jack Sparrow even though Sparrow has spent the entire movie being a dick to everyone. It’s a numb, flattening, overindulgent spectacle.
Still, Dead Man’s Chest might be a bit better than its dim reputation suggests. Maybe I only feel this way because the later sequels have shot cannonball-sized holes in my sense of critical perspective, but rewatching Dead Man’s Chest for the first time since 2007, I was struck by how the film captures the ambience of a theme-park ride, in a good way. From the opening shots—torrential rain soaking Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s wedding china—Dead Man’s Chest has a sweeping, immersive tone. The greenery of the island vegetation is really green. The oceans and the skies are really blue. The water seems really wet. You can tell it’s not a movie made exclusively on sound stages and green screens. There’s a sense of place to everything.
There’s also a broad silliness that works pretty nicely. Scenes like the spherical bone-cage rolling along through the jungle are clearly intended to evoke Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and while they don’t get anywhere close, I appreciate the effort. (Hans Zimmer’s zippily romantic score helps.) Really though, the antic and balletic physicality of some of the slapstick action scenes, like the three-way swordfight on the rolling millwheel, probably owes more to Jackie Chan’s filmography—especially Chan’s own 1983 pirate classic Project A. Whenever possible, Verbinski lets his stunt team put on a show. (In 2007’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End, Verbinski cast Chow Yun-fat, Chan’s fellow Hong Kong action star, as Chinese pirate Sao Feng—a nice gesture at an influence, even if Chow didn’t get enough to do.)
Still, a lot of Dead Man’s Chest is a drag. Some of the special effects scenes, like the first kraken attack, have a nice sense of epic scale to them, but too many of them show off for the sake of showing off. (The constantly gesticulating face-tentacles of Bill Nighy’s cursed squid-man Davy Jones are prime offenders.) Nighy’s villainous character is really mostly there to give the story a MacGuffin—Davy Jones’ heart, locked in a chest somewhere, giving its owner some kind of ill-defined power over the sea. The movie goes for an anti-corporate bent, with the blandly prissy goons of the fictional East India Company going after the heart, but it never fully establishes its stakes or comes off as anything more than a corporate product itself. Too much of the movie rests on Depp’s ability to sell all this silliness, and while Depp is clearly having a good time, the wild spontaneity that he showed in the first Pirates is all used up. By the third movie, Depp’s whole character would be a bundle of repetitive, worn-out tics.
I don’t remember anyone much liking Dead Man’s Chest when it came out. Instead, its immediate reputation was that it was a textbook example of sequel bloat—of a film studio forcing more plot architecture onto a movie, losing whatever charm it first had. It didn’t matter. Dead Man’s Chest was easily, handily the highest-grossing movie of 2006. At the domestic box office, it earned nearly $200 million more than the closest competitor, the first Night At The Museum. Much of that total is probably a reflection of how much people liked that first Pirates, but that can’t explain all of it. Judged on any terms, Dead Man’s Chest was a smash.
Maybe there just wasn’t much competition. In 2006, plenty of great, inventive movies became second-tier hits: The Departed, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, Borat, The Devil Wears Prada, Inside Man. As far as big popcorn movies went, though, shit was bleak. 2006 was the year of Brett Ratner’s misbegotten X-Men: The Last Stand, of Bryan Singer’s ponderous Superman Returns, and of Ron Howard’s wildly boring The Da Vinci Code. Pixar’s Cars was a huge success, but it was also the messiest, dumbest film in the young studio’s history. But Cars was goddamn Miyazaki compared to Ice Age: The Meltdown, the No. 8 film at the 2006 box office.
Hollywood had learned how to inflate box-office receipts by leaning into adaptations of immediately-recognizable intellectual properties, but it was still struggling to turn those properties into fun, engaging movies. The Dark Knight and Iron Man were still two years off. In a climate like that, maybe Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was simply good enough.
Since 2003, the Pirates movies have been steady earners for Disney, but Dead Man’s Chest remains the highest-grossing entry in the series. The Pirates films have been forced to compete with franchises like Marvel and Star Wars—properties owned and operated by Disney but based on ideas from outside the theme-park experience. These days, Johnny Depp increasingly looks like a lost cause, and there’s nothing particularly exciting about the prospect of more Pirates movies. At the moment, movie theaters and theme parks are ghost towns, but Disney is trying to get that particular synergy to hit again. This summer, if all goes according to plan, we’ll see Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and assorted CGI critters in Jungle Cruise. Maybe that one will turn out to be another fun, energetic, low-stakes surprise. Probably not, though. It’ll probably be one more rote, programmatic family-adventure nothing. It might leave no impression whatsoever. But if people are going back to theaters by then, it might still earn a billion dollars. That’s how these things seem to go.
The contender: Given the underwhelming box office top 10 of 2006, there’s really not too much worth endorsing. Casino Royale, the movie that introduced Daniel Craig’s stormy, pugilistic take on James Bond, obviously rules, but I’ve already written about that one at length. So let’s take a moment for George Miller’s Happy Feet, a kids’ film that’s a whole lot better than it had to be.
Happy Feet has its issues. If you don’t find the idea of a tap dancing penguin inherently interesting, then some scenes will try your patience, and there’s also a lot of Robin Williams doing various ethnic accents for no discernible reason. But whenever the film’s animals come into contact with any evidence of human life, there’s a great sense of strangeness and awe. And there are also a couple of breathless, intense chase scenes that let you know you’re watching something from the same director who made all four Mad Max movies.
Next time: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is a total slop-job from a studio intent on cramming in too many marketable characters and a director who’s clearly, visibly over this assignment, but the dancing parts are fun.