A bunch of images, cartoon characters, and set-pieces in search of a coherent movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is likely to please fans of its smash-hit predecessor, but unlikely to convert any new enthusiasts. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski have thoroughly recreated the cast and look of the 2003 film based on the Disneyland ride. What they can't recreate is the novelty of discovering Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, the unpredictable scallywag with the rock-star attitude.
Depp makes a theatrical re-entrance, bursting out of a coffin. Sparrow's dead-alive shtick, resolved in the first movie, becomes un-resolved when the tentacular Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, wasting his precious time) determines to collect on Jack's thirteen-year lease on a second life. Stamped with the Black Spot—which, in a bawdy sight gag, turns his palm hairy—Jack tries to wheel and deal his way back into the living biz.
The demands of the East India Company conspire with Jack's complications indefinitely to postpone the marriage of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), ostensible leading characters who more or less take on an air of irrelevance in this interstitial chapter. Thanks to Jack, Will finds himself on the Flying Dutchman, pressganged into Davy Jones' crew, while Liz poses elsewhere as a suspiciously pretty seaman. They're two of what seem like dozens of turns in the twisty, high-speed, yet absurdly sprawling roller-coaster Pirates of the Caribbean has become (and yes, the likenesses of Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush now grace the original, quaintly slow Disneyland ride).
As if to mock the film's all-trappings, no-sense agenda, Depp's Sparrow gets off the film's sole sign of verbal wit: "Look! An undead monkey!" Most of the time, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's script is tiresomely literal and ploddingly self-referential: "C'mon, make sail—you know how this all works!" or, at the 130-minute mark, "We're not out of this yet!" No kidding. Elongated by its self-satisfied, show-offy tendencies, all Pirates has going for it are its elaborate, expensive sight gags (like stunts involving a human shish kebob and a runaway mill wheel), which are, thank the stars, impressive.
Less impressive is the series' over-reliance on the digital effects which turn Davy Jones and his crew into a walking, talking seafood buffet. Verbinski seems so invested in employing these effects (watch Davy Jones play the organ with his tentacles!) that he only ever asked himself, "Why ask why?," while his 145-minute movie fails to find the time to clarify to the latest generation of kids the suddenly conflated legends of Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman.
It's all we can do to remind ourselves that this all started out as a pirate story. Lee Arenberg and MacKenzie Crook return as second and third banana double act Pintel and Ragetti, and the climax at last delivers some bona fide swashbuckling (too much too late?). The bloated plot also affords returns to Jonathan Pryce and Jack Davenport, among others, while adding Tom Hollander as the latest face of the East India Company, Stellan Skarsgård as Will's dead dad Bootstrap Bill, and Naomie Harris as soothsayer Tia Dalma, queen of the colored, "exotic" sub-cast.
The latter group is mostly defined by a lazily scripted cannibal-native episode that like seemingly every family-film adventure of the last decade, installs one of the characters as a false god (Elliott and Rossio wrap the segment with a straight rip from Raiders of the Lost Ark). Themes very much bring up the rear in Dead Man's Chest, with some lip service paid to a "shrinking" New World in which all must find their places.
Depp's return is emblematic of the series' diminishing returns. The actor is still funny and occasionally inventive with his cowardly, prancing pirate (catchphrase: "Bugger"), but his collection of funny faces becomes repetitive before the two-and-a-half-hour running time runs out. The story is likewise repetitive: the Kraken, an impressive CGI leviathan ruthlessly ripped from the pages of Jules Verne, returns later in the picture to do pretty much the same thing it did the first time.
Worse, Dead Man's Chest inspired the thought: if this thing is tired now, what will it be like to sit through the third film, which this one laboriously sets up? Among the plot threads to be fumblingly unknotted in Pirates III are a son's promise to his father, a love triangle born of Liz and Jack's increasingly flirty relationship, and a baffling "yo ho ho" determination to bring a character and an inanimate object back to life. If you expect nothing more than some sparse yuks and some expensive-looking thrills, they're here amid the excess, and no doubt will be back in place for next summer's next sequel. Will somebody hide the damn rum?