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Looking back at the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Ok, first off: yes, I said the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. I know there are two more films now. To be honest, I haven’t seen them, nor do I really have much interest in doing so. In Pirates 4, the only thing that even piques my interest about it is that Ian McShane plays the villain, and if I’m feeling like I need some Ian McShane, I’ll go watch an an old episode of “Lovejoy.” 

Whew! Anyways…

I remember when the first film, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) came out. At the time, I just knew it had Johnny Depp in it (and that he was rumored to be quite hilarious) and that it also starred the guy who played Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films. I also knew that it was based on a famous Walt Disney ride (this did not fill me with enthusiasm) and that Jerry Bruckheimer was producing it (this made me slightly more interested, though I found Disney/Bruckheimer to be a very strange pairing).

In any event, my parents, my sister, and I went to see it that summer, and I was more than a little surprised in a good way. The movie is incredibly entertaining, laugh out loud funny in places (I still find the early sequence of Jack Sparrow captaining a much smaller ship than expected and then coming into port as it sinks to be quite hilarious), and plot-wise it’s complex enough that it held my interest throughout.

PiratesOTCaribbean_104PyxurzJohnny Depp is indeed quite good here (it’s a shame that he’s played a variation of the exact same character ever since), as is the rest of the cast. Orlando Bloom does quite a good job playing Orlando Bloom. I had never heard of Keira Knightley before seeing this, and I was quite impressed with her here (this opinion would change in future years and other projects). The stand out to me though was Geoffrey Rush, who is clearly having an absolute blast playing Captain Barbossa. He’s easily the most “piratey” of the pirates here, but he still manages to create a real character vs. just a generic “bad pirate” villain.

The production design and direction is also quite good. Gore Verbinski was a name that I really only knew from THE RING (2002). While I really enjoyed that particular film (it’s one of the few decent American remakes of Asian horror films), I didn’t know what to expect for this type of movie. Thankfully, Verbinski shows that he is more than capable of directing a movie with considerable scope, action, and complex visuals.

9310_klaus-badeltShame though about the music. Klaus Badelt is credited with the score, but a closer look reveals a number of the Remote Control-employed Hans Zimmer acolytes who work on so many of Bruckheimer’s projects. I suppose I should give Badelt and co. something of a pass, since they really had mere days to write music for the film. Alan Silvestri had originally been hired to score the film, but for whatever reason, he was let go fairly early on in the process. Instead, we ended up with a rather generic score that could be used in films from a number of different genres.

The most famous cue from the film, “He’s a Pirate” has become well-known (or possibly infamous) over the years, but to me, it’s another of the same generic 3/4 waltz tempo cues that Zimmer and colleagues have been putting out since GLADIATOR (2000). The fact that it has been overplayed by marching bands and TV sports shows ever since hasn’t helped, and the lack of real instrumentation in favor of synth makes it feel like “Zimmer-lite.”


Here come the sequels…

The success of the first film clearly meant that there would be a sequel, but unfortunately, the filmmakers got a little carried away in terms of scope. Retaining the core group from the first movie, including the actors, director, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio was a smart move. However, the approach the creators took would turn out to be somewhat problematic. Instead of telling two standalone stories, the two sequels, DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006) and AT WORLD’S END (2007) would be two parts of a single story.

Perhaps the best comparison here is to the Matrix Trilogy. In both cases, a successful first film led to not one, but two sequels. These sequels would tell a single story across two films and would show much of the same problems: an overwrought plot that could have been better told in a single film. In both sets of films, we ended up with sequences that add bloat rather than contribute to advancing the story.

On balance, I think the Pirates of the Caribbean double sequels work better. The new characters, especially Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), actually make strong, positive contributions to the story (quick: name one new character from the Matrix sequels who actually improves the proceedings).

Jones_with_music_boxDavy Jones is a spectacular amalgam of character work by Nighy and visual effects by ILM. While the environment he is placed in (typically dark and foggy/rainy) helps, he might be, with the possible exception of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, the most convincing CGI character I’d seen to that point. Bill Nighy (whom I would happily watch in anything) gives a quirky take on the character who, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have become a rather two-dimensional monster.

cutler beckettLikewise, Cutler Beckett, who is the other villain of the two sequels, is an already interesting character made even more so by the fact that he is played by Tom Hollander. Beckett is an official of the East India Trading Company, and as such is an enemy to both the film’s heroes and the entire idea of piracy. He represents a more modern sensibility, which threatens the more romanticized pirate lifestyle.

As for the plot, well…frankly there’s too much of it. The first sequel, DEAD MAN’S CHEST, spends an inordinate amount of time getting to the point. Jack Sparrow’s compass is the initial MacGuffin (I say initial because there are more later. Another warning sign.), so everyone is looking for Captain Jack. The problem is, it takes such a long time to find him (something about a black spot curse and him hiding out on an island of cringe-worthy “savage types”) that I had forgotten why they were looking for him in the first place.

Are you bored or offended yet?

On the way, we meet Beckett, his creepy henchman Mercer, Will Turner (Bloom)’s father, a strange woman named Tia Dalma, and are told tales of a Kraken, Davy Jones, and the importance of a chest, a key, and what’s kept inside that chest. The upshot is that all of these plot points do eventually come together in a way that actually makes sense (if you pay attention—something that, based on reviews, critics don’t expect anymore), but it’s a lot to keep straight on a first viewing.

Again, this is a lot like the Matrix sequels, with the audience having to wait through an interminable opening half of MATRIX: RELOADED to actually get to the point. Unlike that series, however, the payoff in AT WORLD’S END is largely satisfying (if again overlong).

Hans+ZimmerAs for the music, Klaus Badelt was jettisoned for the architect of the Media Ventures/Remote Control conglomerate, Hans Zimmer. This move really only provided a marginal improvement for DEAD MAN’S CHEST. Zimmer does provide a new theme (which really seems adapted from Badelt’s music) for Jack Sparrow that bounces from a rather jaunty melody played by the cello to some “Generic Zimmer Waltz” music complete with his usual synthesizer.

His other major thematic contribution is a theme for Davy Jones, which begins and ends as a rather whimsical music box melody that morphs into something more and more tortured as befitting the character.

As for the rest, well, to be honest if really feels like more of the same to me. It’s not bad in the film at all, but it sounds more like a “Remote Control’s Greatest Hits” than anything terribly original.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to film three.

Whether it was because he had more post-production time or he suddenly became inspired by the entire series, Zimmer turned in a score for AT WORLDS END that is miles better than anything that had come before. In addition to building off of his material for DEAD MAN’S CHEST and Badelt’s ubiquitous “He’s a Pirate” theme, Zimmer cranks out two to three massive new themes that, the first time I watched the film, made me wonder where THAT had been all this time.

The first is the more action-oriented theme, which makes its first big appearance during a scene in which the crew finds themselves stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, and they must flip over the boat to escape (just go with it). The entire scene itself is a lot of fun, and ends on an impressive visual of the ocean “draining” backwards much like the water rushing from a bathtub. Note: I’m also including the cue in isolation in case you don’t want to be spoiled by the actual scene.

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The second is a new love theme for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, which does considerable overtime, since the two actors seem to have almost no chemistry on screen. The theme is itself two parts, the first played for the more somber moments, including a wonderful rendition on the oboe:

The second part is the more dramatic of the two, and also at times represents the overall romanticism of pirate life. It’s first appearance is what truly made me sit up and pay attention to the music of the film the first time I saw it:

Another cue of note is for the climactic final confrontation with Cutler Beckett. Thinking he has fooled Jack Sparrow, Beckett sees the tide turn as the Flying Dutchman reappears only with someone other than Davy Jones in command. The music provides an emotional underscore to Beckett’s ultimate failure as his ship is literally destroyed all around him. As long as you can get over the “sailing ships don’t work like that!” it’s a wonderfully shot sequence that also provides Tom Hollander the opportunity to do something he does so well: play someone who is overly confident only to suddenly realize that he is completely out of his league. Again, both the scene and the cue in isolation are provided below.

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Finally, I leave you with a sample from the ending of the film, which contains both the original “He’s a Pirate” theme and Zimmer’s new thematic material. If anything, it will help to emphasize how much better the new music is:

Final Thoughts

The original CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL film was a surprisingly entertaining film when I went to see it in the theater. The sequels, while they have their flaws, are also entertaining, at least for the majority of the time. At worst, I would say there’s a good film in there between the two, with an extra two hours of largely unnecessary, but not bad, material. This is what sets these films apart from the Matrix Trilogy, in my opinion, since those two sequels really only have a handful of scenes that are worth the viewer’s time. Here, you have three films that are highly entertaining, well made, and show Johnny Depp at a stage well before his schtick had become tiring. While it could be a challenge to make it through all three in one sitting (there’s nearly 8 hours of film here!), they would make for a fun weekend. Definitely recommended!


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