By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006; C01
What do we want in a sequel? Just a little taste of the original or a triple serving piled high? "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" opts for the latter. This Disney movie isn't a follow-up to 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" so much as its empty-calorie clone.
Ah, but there is one crucial difference: Where the first movie crackled from the tension between Johnny Depp's edgy character and the Disney movie he was in, the sequel's a comparatively lifeless exercise.
As Jack Sparrow, a caddish pirate given to swishy body language and slurred speech, Depp was the original movie's hero and its most subversive element. In the first film, he exuded a vague gayness, seemed a tad too drunk and deeply lost in his "Spinal Tap"-style stagger and swagger. (Depp reportedly modeled his performance on Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew.) As you watched, you wondered, "Is this going to be too much, too weird?" Is he going to scare family audiences -- or lure them in? And how does a male Disney hero get away with that much eyeliner? This was the delicious undercurrent: a sexually ambiguous Sparrow, not just confounding fictional adversaries but sending titillating ripples of uncertainty through the rows of multiplex patrons.
But one sea chest of plunder later -- $305 million in domestic box office -- it was clear that Depp as Sparrow worked (and why a third "Pirates" is in the works). And that's why "Dead Man's Chest" yields a fiery display of special effects, and a lot of Depp, but nothing startlingly new. Disney has conscientiously recycled seemingly every element from the first film: Depp's woozy shtick, the ghoulish pirates he faces and the return of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Even the 140-minute running time is about the same as its predecessor.
Depp is still the lovable rascal with frilly sleeves, scheming eyes and fey mien. Bending his wrists and pointing the heavily ringed fingers outward like an Alvin Ailey dancer, our central rogue flaps his arms with delicate flourish at every turn. Those featherless wings also pump back and forth as he runs from face-painted islanders who want to sacrifice him. Or they jut horizontally as he teeters (as always, infused with rum) to escape his enemies across the deck of his ship.
But the encore feels forced and hollow -- a repeat performance that's too self-consciously delivered to be charming anymore. There is one scene where Sparrow is captured by the aforementioned islanders and speaks to them in the sort of condescending nativespeak you'd expect to hear from Johnny Weissmuller in the old Tarzan movies. " A boogie snickle snickle ," Depp says with a herky-jerky swagger that seems labored and unnatural. He's too knowingly cute. It's as if he's become a holographic version of himself in the Disney theme park attraction that inspired the movie franchise in the first place.
Perhaps Depp is following the example of his muse Richards, whose band, the Rolling Stones, have themselves evolved from rock-and-roll's edgy, naughty boys to corporate-sponsored, image-manufactured caricatures of themselves. And when Richards joins the cast of the third "Pirates" movie, playing Sparrow's father, that circle will be complete.
In the first film, Depp felt like the mischievous outsider -- almost threatening to sabotage the pirate potboiler he was in -- but now he seems very much the fully sanctioned insider, preapproved to flounce and swirl through "Dead Man's Chest." He's no longer a bad boy. He's Mr. Adorable in glitter-rock beads.
Depp's role in the original served another function: He managed to distract moviegoers from a film cluttered with subplots and lengthy exposition; the movie was hardly this reviewer's tankard of rum, but Depp entertained, propelling it along.
Returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (collaborators whose credits include "Aladdin" and "Shrek") reproduced the same narrative anchors that marred the first film and, worse, render Knightley and Bloom's characters into comely carriers of subplot. Thus, Will Turner (Bloom) is dispatched to steal Sparrow's mystical compass, which is believed to lead to the chest containing the soul of Davy Jones. And Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) stows away as a man aboard Sparrow's ship to find fiance Will, who's presumed lost. When she becomes suddenly, instantly attracted to Sparrow, there seems to be no rhyme or reason except the obvious: The two most beautiful marquee names in the film clearly must kiss. It's the money shot.
In the major plot theme, it seems Sparrow owes a blood debt to the octopus-headed Jones (Bill Nighy), and if he reneges, he'll forever be Jones's deck slave. This story element at least engenders the movie's most entertaining feature: its CGI creations. The word "editing" may not be in director Gore Verbinski's lexicon (he directed the first "Pirates," "The Mexican" and "The Weather Man," among others) but he knows how to make barnacled monsters.
There is a creepy pleasure in the shipload of spectral, grotesque pirates who loom out of the depths to haunt Sparrow's scheming soul, especially the aforementioned Mr. Jones, whose facial tentacles have sucker-studded lives of their own. Or you can marvel and chuckle at the Terry Gilliam-like visual comedy as a clutch of Sparrow's shipmates -- trussed in a suspended net made of bone and hide -- swing their prison back and forth to traverse a deep chasm to safety. Just don't look for the collision of innocence and danger that made the first film so provocative. It has disappeared beneath the waves, headed straight for Davy Jones's locker.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense adventure violence, including frightening images.