Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

HarryPotterandthePrisonerofAzkaban Poster

It’s Harry’s third year at Hogwarts; not only does he have a new “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teacher, but there is also trouble brewing. Convicted murderer Sirius Black has escaped the Wizards’ Prison and is coming after Harry.

Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Release: 4 June 2004 (USA)

Language: English

Rating: 7.8/10

Runtime: 142min

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writers: J.K. Rowling (novel), Steve Kloves (screenplay)

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Mystery, 2004

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Finally a Harry Potter film worth a damn. Living again with his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Marge for the summer, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is subjected to their cruel and unrelenting torture before inflating his aunt into a balloon and watching as she drifts away into the London air. Director Alfonso Cuarón is obsessed with Harry Potter’s evolvement into a young adult and this vicious, almost disturbing spectacle of abuse affords us a side of the wizard that is none too nice. Unlike Chris Columbus’s banal Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, the anxiously paced and happily embellished Prisoner of Azkaban is not only a film with big ideas but also one that trades in conflict of the internal variety. After breathlessly making his way through London and back to Hogwarts, Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a man who allegedly led Lord Voldemort to the boy’s parents, has escaped from prison and is now looking for him. Over the course of the film, Harry seems to grapple with his inevitable meeting with Sirius, but instead discovers that his true enemy is himself. Whether it’s winning the affections of a strange flying bird or learning to tell good apart from evil (a disturbing sequence between a wolf and a werewolf posits a fascinating struggle between nurture and nature), Cuarón’s characters are very much on the brink of psychosexual enlightenment. (For Ron Weasley, the developing Hermione’s mysterious comings and goings are a constant source of wonder.) Harry and his friends are constantly climbing and running places, and Cuarón’s subversive, often expressionistic compositions are surprisingly suggestive, giving way to a meta showdown between the present and the future that challenges Harry’s notions of self-worth and allows him to fully conquer his fears. Lines like “You’re supposed to stroke it” and “I’m sorry to hear about your broomstick” are delivered with tongues planted firmly and cheek. When the young wizard learns to conquer the illusion of the sinister Dementors that guard Hogwarts, the room is lined with an array of phallic candles. These images aren’t accidents (is Harry really stroking his magic wand in the film’s opening sequence?)—this is Cuarón’s way of summoning the queasy terrain of the wizard’s adolescence. Here is a Harry Potter film where the filmmaker isn’t trying to fulfill a check-listed quota. But will fans of Chris Columbus’s films be prepared for this new installment, where the final showdown isn’t between Harry and a big scary animal but a boy and the perils of time?

by Ed Gonzalez (31 March 2004)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

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Harry ignores warnings not to return to Hogwarts, only to find the school plagued by a series of mysterious attacks and a strange voice haunting him.

Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Release: 15 November 2002 (USA)

Language: English

Rating: 7.4/10

Runtime: 161min

Director: Chris Columbus

Writers: J.K. Rowling (novel), Steve Kloves (screenplay)

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson

Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Mystery, 2001

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Please read the following with shrill Cockney accent: In this week’s 161-minute, ass-numbing episode of “Harry Potter,” watch as our favorite Hogwart wizard goes through puberty and is forced to unlock the Chamber of Secrets! What will little Harry Potter do when the higgeldy-piggeldy is out of the bag and all his friends are turned to stone? With the help of Ron, Hermione, and Ginny Weasley’s diary, Harry will once again save the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry from the dark forces of Slytherin’s past. Did last week’s episode of “Harry Potter” leave you hungry for more spells and Quidditch matches? Hold on to your seats faithful Hogwartians! Harry’s latest adventure has enough snakes, mandrakes, phoenix tears, Cornish pixies, climaxes, denouements, and unexplained camera tilts to scare the J.R.R. Tolkien out of you. Make no mistake, though—this is a quintessential J.K. Rowling toy factory. Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithen’s Day already? Not since Goblin Pubby viciously scared the Schnappsburgher Spitzligs have you seen an adventure this raucous. Not only will you get to see Harry and Ron breaking the speed limit aboard a flying car (watch out for that Whomping Willow!) but you’ll also get to see young Harry duke it out with the evil young Draco in a death-defying battle-in-the-sky that will put crazy ol’ George Lucas to shame! Children: Do Not Try This At Home! Step aside Jar-Jar Binks, here comes little Dobby! And is that Gilderoy Lockhart I see? Well, that fey accent won’t do you any good where you’re going, you dirty dirty teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts! How will Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall negotiate the racial free-for-all between the pure-bloods and the muggle-borns while trying to cover up Mr. Columbus’s gratuitous cutaways to black faces? More importantly, will Harry Potter grow the Quidditch balls to play Y Tu Jism Tambien inside the Hogwarts swimming pool with that Mexican man hiding behind those bushes? All this and more in this action-packed episode we like to call Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Same Hogwart time, same Hogwart channel. Back in St. Olaf during the annual cheese fair, Gertrude Ginkelhaughen, the town’s biggest pusher for imported cheese, used to say: “If you don’t want to miss a minute of this stuffy three-hour redundancy, bring a urine bucket!”

by Ed Gonzalez (11 November 2002)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

HarryPotterandtheSorcerer'sStone Poster

Rescued from the outrageous neglect of his aunt and uncle, a young boy with a great destiny proves his worth while attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Release: 16 November 2001 (USA)

Language: English

Rating: 7.5/10

Runtime: 152min

Director: Chris Columbus

Writers: J.K. Rowling (novel), Steve Kloves (screenplay)

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris

Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy, 2001

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As far as stuffy Oxford dramas go, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has them all beat. You wouldn’t know by watching the film that J.K. Rowling’s titular wizard is looking for familial closure. Director Chris Columbus shamelessly trivializes orphan Harry’s childhood angst, transforming the boy’s pre-teen existence at the Dursley home into an abrasive Cinderella procedural. Cousin Dudley is about as obnoxious as portly British chaps come, which makes the brat’s entrapment inside a snake’s cage Harry’s well-earned last laugh. Lost here is the joy and mystery that should accompany Harry’s pre-pubescent discovery of his wizard talents. Daniel Radcliffe’s asexual Harry turns 11, learns to snake-talk and is whisked away to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry by his creepy “godmother” Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Leaving his bone-dry childhood behind, Harry’s new Candyland abode becomes home sweet home for fellow wizards and witches alike.

As a greatest hits compilation of J.K. Rowling’s book, Columbus’s film dishes out set pieces so disharmonious to each other you might forget their utter heartlessness. Most unfortunate is how many of the film’s more evocative scenarios are lost amid the mind-numbing, non-stop John Williams score. Sans one cutaway to a snowy seasonal change, the film’s screwy pacing never suggests an entire school year has transpired. If there is anything working to the film’s advantage, it’s Columbus’s deft attention to detail. The Hogwarts School’s paintings have a life of their own, while ordinary childhood desires get the clever wizard-rewrite; if muggles desire Playstation 2, Harry and the gang dream of Nimbus 2000 broomsticks. If there is any truth to be found in Harry Potter it’s that childhood is all about the need for speed, regardless of age or class. In fact, you might have a difficult time distinguishing the film’s Quidditch match from Episode One‘s dull pod race.

Harry shines at the Hogwarts School, which turns into a haven for conspiracy theorists and Boston Chicken lovers. Archetypal rapscallions and jealous dopes inhabit Columbus’s group houses (think Midwestern fraternities with tamer hazing rituals). Red-haired Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and micro-bitch Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are Harry’s conspirators in crime. A fluffy Cerberus guards the Sorcerer’s Stone, which Harry and Friends hope to save from the clutches of the aptly named Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, sniveling and pausing dramatically only the way he can). As wondrous as it may be to attend the Hogwarts School, Columbus spends entirely too little time inside the classroom. Maggie Smith, Ian Hart, and Zoë Wanamaker all do the spiritless teacher routine although Columbus tackles spell-casting to charming effect when his tykes learn to make feathers hover.

Hokey special effects sequences aside, the film’s cinematography is bland and muggy. Columbus may not know what to do with a camera yet some of his compositions manage to jolt. Staring into the Erised mirror, Harry’s familial loss is emphasized; a pillar bisects the frame, separating the downtrodden wizard from Richard Harris’s fatherly Dumbledore. Even more effective is the Forbidden Forest sequence; bathed in startling blue tones, this creepy number does wonders with silver unicorn blood as Harry comes face to face with the creature responsible for his parents’ death. If Harry Potter is to be taken as a saga where love saves the day, there are few scenarios here that heighten Harry’s emotional ante. Despite some egregious close-ups and abrasive sound effects, Harry’s final trip through the dungeon finds the boy fiercely duking it out with keys and chess pieces. Harry Potter snags piece of mind and Columbus finds his heart, although the rest of the film is nothing more than a solidly dull celebration of dribbling goo, invisibility cloaks (you’ll wish you had one) and flying creatures. Kid-friendly? I suppose, but where was Tim Burton when you needed him?

by Ed Gonzalez (29 October 2001)

Into the Wild (2007)

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After graduating from Emory University, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandons his possessions, gives his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life.

Title: Into The Wild

Release: 19 October 2007 (USA)

Language: English

Rating: 8.1/10

Runtime: 148min

Director: Sean Penn

Writers: Sean Penn (screenplay), Jon Krakauer (book)

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Biography, 2007

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Romanticization takes precedence over analysis in Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s exasperating adaptation of John Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller about Chris McCandless, a middle-class kid who graduated from Emory in 1990 and promptly went off the reservation, finally dying from starvation in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. Pieced together from journals, interviews, police reports, and anecdotes, Krakauer’s novel held McCandless in esteem but not with the rose-tinted glasses through which Penn views him, as the director casts his protagonist as a veritable Christ figure to be not only revered but envied. McCandless’s decision to reject his unhappily married parents’ Cadillac materialism—which involved burning his cash and IDs, donating his life savings to Oxfam, and hitchhiking to Alaska—was, in his own eyes, a rebellion against an empty society which he had to flee before, like flies on meat, it forever spoiled him. Penn buys this self-made conception of McCandless, envisioning him as a classical ‘60s nomadic free spirit: kindhearted, pure in intent, and hungry for all the wondrous, dangerous opportunities the world offers. In quick glimpses of the president justifying 1991’s Gulf War on television, Penn makes explicit his identification with McCandless, a man bold enough to wholly reject a Bushie society in favor of a more harmonious, pure state of being.

Dreamy as that notion might be, however, Into the Wild isn’t a completely convincing lionization. Penn utilizes a variety of multimedia means—handwriting across the screen, narration from McCandless’s travel logs and from his loyal sister Carine (Jena Malone), twilight panoramas of the vast countryside, flashbacks and (phony) home-movie footage—and yet McCandless remains something of a cipher, a man primarily glimpsed through his own written thoughts as well as the recollections of loved ones. These sources, alas, prove insufficient, since McCandless’s ruminations on “ultimate freedom” and wanting to “kill the false being within” are so self-aggrandizing that he comes off less a quixotic truth-seeker than someone wielding derivative ideals to mask a more obvious, immature adolescent revolt against his mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and father (William Hurt). Whether such a revolt is justified remains unanswered, since—despite a gracious shot of a forlorn Mr. McCandless grieving his lost son—Penn’s sketchy depiction of the boy’s parents never effectively confronts or complicates McCandless’s memories of his tumultuous home life. Far too heavily, Into the Wild simply buys what McCandless was selling, but even more than that, it augments what he was selling, while cursorily addressing (or outright sidestepping) any aspects of the tale that might be at odds with the young man’s carefully constructed, pseudonym-ed self-image as “Alexander Supertramp,” late 20th-century Jack London-by-way-of-Kerouac.

Attempting to craft a three-dimensional portrait from a pastiche of information, an impressive Hirsch, in focused method acting-mode (right down to his emaciated third-act torso), captures his character’s intense conviction and charismatic confidence. Yet throughout his episodic journey—in which he meets various surrogate family members, including a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a 16-year-old singer-songwriter (Kirsten Stewart), and an elderly widower (Hal Holbrook)—McCandless’s talk of rejecting modern life and embracing solitary communion with the environment sounds so unoriginal and borderline-preachy that it’s tough to comprehend the seemingly profound effect he has on others. Better are the sequences in which McCandless is alone in the wilderness and, specifically, in the “magic bus” that eventually became both his home and his sarcophagus. In these moments, Penn conveys a powerful sense of wanderlust and yearning for spiritual affiliation with the natural world, with Eric Gautier’s probing, searching camera in harmony with its subject, and the image of McCandless hauling his kayak over a mountain subtly linking him to one of Werner Herzog’s legendary adventurers, Fitzcarraldo.

Mythologizing McCandless might be a somewhat questionable aim, but at least initially, Penn and editor Jay Cassidy’s graceful segueing between McCandless’s magic bus period and his preceding exploits (split up into chapters labeled by stages of life) lyrically expresses the internal and external forces compelling his fateful expedition onward. By its midway point, however, the director’s aesthetic expressionism becomes something of a nuisance, with poetic slow motion, sunset silhouettes, indulgent semi-improvisatory ramblings by McCandless, and Eddie Vedder tunes contributing to a feeling that Penn is trying too hard, and too insistently, to articulate the ineffable. At its finest, such as with McCandless’s unlikely conversation with an old man in the desert, or his chance encounter with a Danish couple (he hyper-garrulous, she topless) on the banks of a heavily policed river, the film catches a strong whiff of McCandless’s experiential openness, of his desire for something more than gold watches and a preordained set of suburban responsibilities. Into the Wild‘s escalating employment of mannered affectations, however, ultimately becomes a burdensome drag from which, like the itinerant path taken by McCandless himself, there’s no triumphant return.

by Nick Schager (7 September 2007)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

PiratesoftheCaribbeanOnStrangerTides Poster

Jack Sparrow and Barbossa embark on a quest to find the elusive fountain of youth, only to discover that Blackbeard and his daughter are after it too.

Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Release: 20 May 2011 (USA)

Language: English

Rating: 6.7/10

Runtime: 128min

Director: Rob Marshall

Writers: Ted Elliott (screenplay), Terry Rossio (screenplay)

Stars: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane

Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, 2011

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Rob Marshall’s philosophy for shooting action sequences seems to be roughly equivalent to his approach to musical numbers: give ’em as little as possible. Just as the danceless “dance” sequences that polluted the director’s Nine were assembled a posteriori in the editing room, thus obviating the need for choreography, the numerous fight scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides feel cobbled together from hundreds of disparate snippets. No scorched-earth Greengrassian postmodernist, Marshall imbues his sword fights and chase scenes with a semblance of visual coherence, but he’s careful not to linger on any single bit of action long enough for viewers to register the significance of the image they’ve just witnessed.

It’s an enervating approach that marks the film as more exhausting than enthralling, and its m.o. of nonstop clatter is one that Marshall applies to almost every aspect of the production. Everything is pitched so high in terms of loud exclamations, dramatic music, and frenetic activity that one would reasonably expect the film to be a compendium of juicy thrills, but the uniformity of tone instead renders the whole thing uniformly dull. When the characters aren’t fighting each other, they’re making solemn threats or, in the case of Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow and Penélope Cruz’s Angelica, exchanging caustic but flirtatious barbs, all of which is about as sexy as watching Richard Griffiths frump it up as a boorish, overweight King George II.

This fourth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the 18th-century-set On Stranger Tides has as its central narrative the search for the Fountain of Youth and the accompanying paraphernalia that allow its powers to be harnessed. In its overly convoluted plotting, three groups of explorers set out to follow the trail of the late Ponce de León. While Sparrow flits between the parties of gone-straight buccaneer Barbossa’s (Geoffrey Rush) British contingent and that of the unrepentant pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter (and Sparrow’s love interest) Angelica, the Spanish set off to stake their own claim for the fountain.

After the overlong setup (which admittedly contains the film’s best action sequence, the only one to successfully incorporate a measure of humor into the staging), it’s off to sea for a series of set pieces that have a distinct time-marking quality, riding out the duration until the three groups finally arrive at their destination. There are no shortage of film-padding subplots devised by screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, ranging from the dull to the ridiculous (a romance between a missionary and mermaid has to represent some kind of new low for screen amour) and some half-baked discussion about faith toward which the movie can’t be bothered to develop a coherent attitude, but mostly the filmmakers rely on a rather perfunctory use of 3D to endow the whole thing with an (ironically) surface-deep patina of thrills. But give or take a sword or two being thrust at the audience or a barrel rolling toward the viewer and the stereoscopic process serves mostly to extend the foreground image while leaving the background flat. Its use of 3D as uninspired as its staging, plotting, and characters (and its weak stabs at humor), On Stranger Tides proves its title to be a patently false bit of advertising. There’s nothing strange—or in any way extraordinary—about this dim-witted bore.

by Andrew Schenker (16 May 2011)

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

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Captain Barbossa, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann must sail off the edge of the map, navigate treachery and betrayal, find Jack Sparrow, and make their final alliances for one last decisive battle.

Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Release: 25 May 2007 (USA)

Language: English

Rating: 7.1/10

Runtime: 169min

Director: Gore Verbinski

Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio

Stars: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley

Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, 2007

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Given its origins as a theme park ride, it’s apt that Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy has experienced a trajectory not unlike that of a rollercoaster: an initial high, followed by repeated plummets to nauseating lows. At World’s End completes the story begun by last year’s Dead Man’s Chest, and features all the cacophonous action and paper-thin drama that helped sabotage its deflating predecessor. Aesthetically speaking, there’s virtually nothing differentiating these films, as both boast Gore Verbinski’s spatially incoherent battle scenes, Dolby-customized sonic bombast, and lavish special effects so lacking in fine detail that they’re deliberately shrouded in murky darkness. Yo Ho Ugh, it’s merely more of the same, and I do mean more; at a whopping 168 minutes, so much happens in At World’s End that it’s nigh impossible to keep up with all the various machinations and conflicting motivations crammed into Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s script. Such overkill, however, is simply a tool of distraction aimed at diverting attention away from the fact that the film’s existence is driven not by overarching narrative demands (there’s barely enough substantive material to warrant even a 90-minute runtime), but by an insatiable corporate bottom line.

Previously on Pirates: Smash, bang, boom, and other loud, meaningless hijinks led fey rascal Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to be imprisoned in Davy Jones’s locker, and insipid lovebirds Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) to team up with newly resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to help rescue Jack so he, in turn, could aid their quest to defeat squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his new master, East India Trading Company bigwig Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander). That mouthful of a synopsis pales in comparison to the one necessitated by At World’s End, whose myriad convoluted storylines involve most principal characters making promises to their mates, then engineering duplicitous back-room arrangements with their enemies (to further their own selfish ends), and then coming around and doing the right thing in the end because, well, it makes for a happier, safer, less morally complicated ending. Countless cross-purposes are simultaneously at work and yet, throughout, amount to naught, with the resultant plot muddle—made up of thinly sketched characters who are chiefly defined by their relationship to each other, and whose issues are dealt with in bite-size portions to make room for distended combat sequences—stinking like a pile of discarded corpses.

The film’s primary thread concerns the historic convening of the Brethren Court (made up of the nine pirate lords, two of whom are Sparrow and Barbossa), providing At World’s End with an opportunity to indulge in outlandish stereotypes (among them: the screaming Japanese pirate queen, the stuffy French pirate fop, and Chow Yun-Fat sporting a Fu Manchu as Singapore’s stilted English-spouting Captain Sao Feng). Crass, to be sure, but no less laughably objectionable than the script’s underlying clash between British capitalism (“It’s just good business,” is Cutler’s be-all excuse for treachery) and pirate “honor,” a concept Verbinski and company don’t even bother trying to explain. In essence, we’re meant to root for Jack and his plundering cohorts purely because they’re the funny and/or hot ones. It’s a strategy that might have been more tenable were it not for Bloom’s enervating blandness, Knightley’s counterfeit badass posturing and Braveheart-ish “Freedom!” speech (as well as her comical ability to keep her tanned face smudge-free), and the unavoidable sense that what was once unique and inspired about Depp’s Sparrow has, at this point, become calculated and dull, his prancing and lisping and flailing about emitting the odor of a stale routine.

Absent rhythm or even basic narrative uniformity, the film careens clumsily, occasionally hitting upon a quirky moment—such as Jack’s hallucinatory escapades in Davy Jones’s locker and in the Flying Dutchman’s brig—but mainly propping up its watery scenarios with recycled imagery (including three shots of boats bursting out of the ocean), pedestrian swordfights, and a dreary cameo from Keith Richards as the elder Sparrow. From beating aortas and heart-shaped lockets to enchanted compasses and cipher-laden maps, talismanic crap abounds, yet because the film’s mythology carries no weight, these trinkets’ supposed momentous value is nil; they’re just so much costume jewelry. Meanwhile, limp romantic dilemmas are reconciled during a climactic showdown in which two battleships chase each other around a whirlpool in some bizarre (and immensely tedious) version of Pirate NASCAR. Explaining to Davy Jones that his supernatural era is coming to a close, destined to be replaced by regimented European modernity, Cutler opines, “The immaterial has become the immaterial.” By the faux-bittersweet conclusion of At World’s End—a spectacle composed of intangible CG, superficial performances, and twists and turns that are vapidly resolved—it’s clear that the statement also pertains to this empty vessel of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise.

by Nick Schager (23 May 2007)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest

Jack Sparrow races to recover the heart of Davy Jones to avoid enslaving his soul to Jones’ service, as other friends and foes seek the heart for their own agenda as well.

Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Release: 7 July 2006 (USA)

Language: English

Rating: 7.3/10

Runtime: 151min

Director: Gore Verbinski

Writers: Ted Elliott (screen story), Terry Rossio (screen story)

Stars: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley

Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, 2006

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Even for a sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest takes the practice of double-dipping to extreme depths, its guiding principle—as was the case with its predecessor’s third act—being that once is fun but twice is nicer: in this case, two villains, two love triangles, two self-sacrificing fathers, two CG centerpieces involving a leviathan, and two bustling sequences in which characters dash down a tropical forest mountainside in/on round contraptions. It’s the last of these that most accurately exemplifies Gore Verbinski’s follow-up to his 2003 blockbuster, his newest swashbuckler something of an awkwardly constructed Disney World ride that begins listlessly and gradually gains momentum as it dispenses with all non-action-oriented concerns. As with its antecedent, Dead Man’s Chest finds Johnny Depp’s flamboyantly foppish scoundrel Jack Sparrow being hunted by both human and inhuman foe alike, the former an East India Trading Company heavy named Beckett (Tom Hollander) who desires Sparrow’s magical compass, and the latter the legendary locker-keeper Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who wishes to collect on a soul-debt owed to him by the roguish, dreadlocked pirate.

The film’s regurgitating modus operandi extends to its tongue-in-cheek (gallows) humor and set pieces’ spirited rowdiness, as well as to the fact that noble Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and spunky Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley)—whose wedding ceremony is rudely postponed by the malevolent forces of the British Crown—remain the leaden anchor of this Mouse House franchise, their spick-and-span goodness a woefully feeble counterpoint to ne’er-do-well Sparrow’s deceptiveness. With its narrative course plotted along familiar routes, Dead Man’s Chest lacks a needed spark of novelty and inspired, devil-may-care gusto. But even more problematic is that it fails to appreciably expand upon the original’s sturdy template, exhibiting only a passing interest in its latent themes—regarding love, honor, patriarchy, and colonialism’s taming of the savage world (and the subsequent consequences for iconoclastic rebels like Jack)—and never yielding, with the squid-faced Jones and his barnacled, crustaceous Flying Dutchman crewman, a fantastically magical moment on par with The Curse of the Black Pearl‘s exquisite first shot of moonlit skeleton swabs.

Verbinski’s extravaganza nonetheless reaps modest rewards from rambunctiousness, its skirmishes featuring the many-tentacled Kracken orchestrated with thunderous intensity and a scene (seemingly set on Skull Island) in which a Colonel Kurtz-ish Sparrow flees his stereotypically ooga-booga minions enlivened by giddy pole-vaulting acrobatics. Moreover, for all its duplicative tendencies, Dead Man’s Chest ultimately stays just afloat thanks to Depp’s uniquely idiosyncratic scalawag, the actor imbuing his preening, loose-limbed pirate with a drunken dancer’s grace and a combination of colorful Walt Disney charm and rascally Chuck Jones mischievousness. As befitting his position as this high seas adventure’s sashaying center of attention, Sparrow is, at film’s cliffhanger conclusion, given one marvelously valiant composition that rightfully elevates the duplicitous, selfish character beyond mere cartoon caricature and into the realm of anti-heroic icon. And thus it comes as little surprise that the story’s soggiest element turns out to be its attempted romantic tension between Sparrow, Turner, and Swann, an endeavor doomed by the charisma-imbalance of its three leads and the obvious fact that Sparrow’s devious appeal lies, first and foremost, in his boundless self-love.

by Nick Schager (29 July 2006)