Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a movie that should not have worked. It’s an expensive swashbuckler based on a theme park attraction. Do you remember what the other movies based on Disney rides were around the same time? The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion. It’s a pirate movie, which wasn’t really being made anymore – after the notorious flop of Renny Harlin’s 1995 film Cutthroat Island, the genre was pretty much dead. And it was centered around Johnny Depp, an actor who had never been in a big-budget summer blockbuster before, and who was most well-known as an arthouse darling and the guy who shows up in Tim Burton movies. It’s a movie that had a lot going against it, but then found its way towards critical acclaim, financial success, and even an Oscar nomination for Depp.
Following that kind of success, of course Disney turned it into a franchise. They got to work on two back-to-back sequels released in 2006 and 2007, called Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. There was a ton of hype behind them, and while they made a lot of money (and I mean, a lot of money), critical reception took a notable nosedive. Dead Man’s Chest sits at a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, and At World’s End holds a 45%. And watching them, sure, that makes sense. These movies are overlong, nonsensical, cringeworthy, overly complicated, a blight against humanity in all of its forms … but they’re also kind of awesome.
The general consensus today seems to be that, while the first Pirates was good, the sequels have all been trash. To which I say, yes, but there are different degrees of trash. And sometimes trash is great, as is the case with Pirates 2 and 3. Because these movies go all in to a degree that we should see from more blockbuster films. The mythology, the world-building, the bonkers action sequences — does it really matter if none of it holds together into a coherent narrative? Sure it does, but director Gore Verbinski (one of the best, most underrated filmmakers working today) is committed to every idea and directs the hell out of every scene.
This is a four-quadrant mainstream blockbuster series that families go to in which the third movie opens with a little boy getting hanged. It’s one where a major antagonist is a hundred-year-old octopus man and nobody treats that like it’s odd. It’s a series that’s as indebted to Errol Flynn as it is to Looney Tunes, cutting back and forth between intensely choreographed sword fights and slapstick comedy at a moment’s notice.
To really understand how good Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are, one only has to look to the fourth entry in the series, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Verbinski exits the franchise and is replaced by Rob Marshall (Chicago), while actors Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley also check out, leaving the franchise centered on Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. While 2 and 3 greatly expanded Sparrow’s role from the first film (which was already substantial), his story was usually secondary to Will’s and Elizabeth’s. Depp doesn’t even appear for the first half hour or so of At World’s End. Jack Sparrow is a fun supporting character, but he can’t carry a movie on his own. That coupled with the loss of Verbinski left the fourth film a visually flat, more annoying experience that, even if the script did make slightly more sense, had lost the franchise’s heart in a jar of dirt.
At the end of the day, don’t we often go to the movies to see something we haven’t seen before? Because there are probably 20 scenes across both films that fit that bill. Whether it’s a swordfight on a rolling water wheel or a large-scale battle across multiple pirate ships in the middle of a hurricane, these movies have that quality in spades. I’ll concede that the first movie is the best in the series — of course it is! It has the fun characters, dynamic action, and wild premise of the sequel films while also cohering to a sense of structure and storytelling. But 2 and 3 feel like the product of a madman gone wild, a half-billion-dollar enterprise dedicated to total insanity from the studio that is generally known for playing it pretty safe (their recent trend of live-action remakes of animated classics being a perfect example). They feel like Verbinski got away with something, like he tricked Disney into making two films that were totally and completely comprised of his own id.
Verbinski teamed up again with Disney and the old Pirates team for 2013’s The Lone Ranger, but lightning did not strike twice. It was a notorious box-office bomb, and while the spark of insanity was still there and the movie has its moments (its climax, in particular, is excellent), it felt like a more compromised vision than his Pirates films. Early reactions to the fifth film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, indicate that it’s a return to form for the franchise, harkening back to the original. But no matter how it turns out, it likely won’t have a scene in which Naomie Harris grows into a giant before exploding into hundreds of crabs. These movies are as “go big or go home” as it gets, and for all their faults, Pirates 2 and 3 go big. Kraken-sized, one might say.
Michael Smith lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., scallawags.