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My personal experience with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies has been quite a rollercoaster ride. To start, the very idea of a film based on a theme park ride was downright ridiculous, and pirate movies had proven box office poison for decades (I believe that up until the release of Pluto Nash, Cutthroat Island was the number one biggest money loser of all time). Jerry Bruckheimer had been producing two dimensional garbage for ever ( Kangaroo Jack, Bad Company, Pearl Harbor, Coyote Ugly, with only Black Hawk Down to break the awfulness), and director Gore Verbinski had only been a blip on the radar (though Mouse Hunt and The Ring did impress). There were only two things working in the films favour, and only two things that got me in that theater in 2003—Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
How surprised was I when Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl ended up being an entertaining swashbuckler that garnered a well earned Academy Award nomination for star Johnny Depp? Very, that’s how surprised. Truthfully, Depp and Rush really rule over the film with duelling iron fists, but weak sauce beauties Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly are actually well cast as the less interesting story’s leaders. Black Pearl is a little overlong, and perhaps a little too dependant on special effects (but golly gee are those cool looking skeleton ghosts), but really the film should be remembered as a success, and despite its sequel’s shortcomings I’d like to see it looked back on fondly.

But the sequels have soiled the briny deep of Black Pearl’s water. I like to call it the Matrix  Complex (though I’m sure others would prefer the Prequel Trilogy Syndrome). When ineffective or ill-advised sequels overwhelm the memory of a good original film, the public has a tendency to group a series into the ‘bad’ category. I’m totally guilty of this.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is purely and simply a bad movie. It begins by turning all the major characters into entirely unlikable wretches. Bloom and Knightly’s generally bland presence is intensified by mistaking mean spirited whininess for character development, and Depp’s appears entirely disinterested in the character, who the writers seem to have confused with Bugs Bunny. Black Pearl’s issues with special effects dependency, and unnecessary length are increased ten-fold, and perhaps worst of all, the comic relief devolves into George Lucas levels of un-funniness.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Rumours circulated during the production of Dead Man’s Chest, and the second sequel At World’s End (which were shot at the same time) that the scripts were not finished, and several chunks of plot were being made up as the filming commenced. I don’t know if these rumours were true, but Dead Man’s Chest bares many scars that point towards accuracy. The plot is a mess of set pieces with very little narrative thread to connect them. There’s no reason for the film to take two and a half hours to get from Bloom and Knightly’s wedding threatened to Captain Jack getting noshed by the Kraken. The story told over the two sequels is too big for one movie, but so much of the actual plot is delegated to At World’s End that I find it completely within reason to skip Dead Man’s Chest when re-watching the trilogy for this review, which really says something about the strength of the storytelling.

It doesn’t actually have huge barring on my decision to dislike Dead Man’s Chest, but after seeing it for the first time (on an airplane, unfortunately) I realized that its plot template was taken directly from the most popular fantasy sequel of all time— The Empire Strikes Back. Both films begin with the heroes losing a ‘battle’ (a less literal one in the case of Dead Man’s Chest), and becoming separated. Both films introduce a new character that supplies a hero with important information on control of the supernatural (Yoda and Tia Dalma). Both films feature the return of a character from a hero’s past with questionable allegiances, who will end up betraying the heroes, then atoning in the next film (Lando and Norrington). Both films feature the discovery of a lost father figure who the main hero will single-mindedly try to ‘save’ in the next film (Vader and Bootstrap Bill). Perhaps most tellingly, both films feature the ‘death’ of the lovably scruffy pirate (Han Solo and Jack Sparrow), and both films end with the surviving heroes regrouping to rescue the pirate from ‘death’.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
How ever, contrary to every single assumptive bone in my body, I actually kind of like At World’s End. The third film in the series is still a mess in its script, and the humour is still pretty risible, and it’s too long, and it still depends too much on visual effects, but there’s a welcome sense of the absurd, and the fantasy elements of the series finally seem to have found their footing. In some senses At World’s End feels like an entirely different experience then Dead Man’s Chest, even though the events of the two movies follow thematically very closely. There’s a palpable sense of sorrow in the film, especially for Davy Jones, who was nothing but a waste of amazing CG work and Bill Nighy’s talents. Cutler Beckett and Norrington’s arcs aren’t emotionally satisfying, and Chow Yun Fat is entirely wasted, but Bloom and Knightly finally get a chance to do something effectively emotional, and Depp gets a fair chance at taking his Oscar nominated character out on a high note.

At World’s End gets a pass in my book for three key reasons, as even totally rad special effects and an improved sense of pacing can’t make up for a continuously convoluted plot featuring more senseless double crosses than a Mission Impossible movie. The first ace is the return of Geoffrey Rush, who was greatly missed in the previous episode. Captain Barbosa gives Depp something to work off of, and no one can sell a pirate stereotype like Geoffrey Rush can. His presence alone sells the marriage scene. The second ace is the aforementioned sense of absurdity that concerns the first act of the film, and which bleeds into parts of the finale. The white washed dead world, the melancholy dead spirits in the water, and the Black Pearl’s journey to the end of the world recalls the best Terry Gilliam imagery, and gives the film a real visual identity. The final ace is the bittersweet ending. I say bravo to the writers, who after almost three film’s worth of pulp and lightweight drama had the balls to end this story on what basically equates to a downer.

Video


Now I’m sure all you Jack Sparrow fans already own these discs, right? You all know these discs look and sound just about as good as anyone can expect, right? I can just skip all this stuff, right? Ok then, talk to you later. Ok, apparently Tom tells me I have to write something here, so I guess I’ll think of something.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
All three films look equally as fresh, sharp, and spiffing, thought the first film does display a slightly less ‘refined’ look (meaning that it actually looks a little more natural than the CG overhauled sequels), and the nit-pickers may notice some fine grain and noise during scenes with low and warm light. Verbinski’s compositions are fantastic reference material for the format, because of their mix of stylized lighting, textured costume and set design, and state of the art special effects. There are a few moments throughout the series that are generally slighted in detail, but overall we’re talking the sharpest edges and most impeccably separated colours. Sometimes Verbinski opts for an overall colour grading, such as the cool blue night scenes, but most of the film’s scenes are vibrant with many colours, each popping with their own impressive brilliance.

The blacks, especially those of the latter two films, are deep and diamond cut, adding rough texture to natural hues like boat wood or human flesh. The textured art direction is one element of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy that every viewer must agree is impressive, and in high definition these textures take on an extremely lifelike appearance. The digital characters revel in just as much detail as the real characters, which is a big part of their success and believability. The one curse of hi-def is its effect on special effects of all sorts. Mostly these films get away with their effects, especially in darker and wider shots (the Kraken and maelstrom look awesome), but there are some creature close-ups that don’t do quite so well. Most specifically Davy Jones’ tentacles sometimes lack ‘blend’, and when the Kraken appears behind Jack at the end of film two it lacks definition and contrast.

Research tells me that there was a problem with Black Pearl’s framing when it was first released. From what I can tell (and I could be wrong) this set features the correctly framed version.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Audio


First, a quick aside, which will actually have an impact on all my future Blu-ray reviews until future notice. Some readers may remember that I have a lack of 5.1 PCM availability, which caused a bit of a, erm, rift. I now realize, thanks to my friend Chris Gould, that I actually can get 5.1 PCM though the analogue connections of my system. I would blame myself for this oversight, but I’m going to shift the blame to Sony’s crappy instruction booklet (which, might I add, didn’t tell me anything about the firmware abilities either. Perhaps I was missing pages). Anyway, this revelation led to the revelation that I don’t have full DTS-HD MA capabilities, and never will, even if I buy a new system, because my Profile 1.0 Sony simply can’t do it (I just now got full TrueHD through the latest firmware upgrade). So then, from now on, just so there isn’t any misunderstanding, when I’m reviewing a DTS-HD MA track, I’m actually reviewing a slightly de-awesomed version of the track.

Now that we’ve got all that out of the way (hopefully forever), we can get back to this collection’s super strong PCM tracks. In keeping with the case of the similar video quality across the set, all three films are about equally balanced in audio fury. At World’s End is probably the crown jewel of the set, mostly because of the audibly unbelievable maelstrom sequence, which I was a little afraid was going to burst my speakers. A seafaring adventure should lead to plenty of fun water and storm effects in the rear and stereo channels, but in the fantastical world of Pirates of the Caribbean we also find laughing ghosts, growling fish men, and a screaming Kraken lurking about our speakers.

Black Pearl features a cut a paste score, a fact that I actually didn’t know until I listened to the commentary track. Now that I know I can’t believe I didn’t notice. The score is obviously taken from and written by several different sources. It’s got the overall feel of Hans Zimmer (actually, I’m pretty sure it recycles cues from Gladiator, and if it doesn’t perhaps the composers should have a second look at their skills), but it never quite blends. The later film's scores were apparently more specifically produced by Zimmer, who basically does his best impersonation of himself. However, despite my snotty disapproval of the way famous composers tend to repeat themselves, the scores of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are impossible to resist, and sound pretty amazing on disc.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Among the bombastic sea storms, frightful monsters, and ‘yo-ho’ soundtrack, there is no loss of dialogue or definition of sound. The mixes are expertly crafted in that they simply don’t muddy, even when all ten thousand gears are revving. The separation of the channels is so impressive that these tracks actually made my modest system, which is set in a pretty small room, move beyond its usual limitations. I don’t know if I want to fall to hyperbole and call this the best thing my system’s ever heard, but I’m not thinking of anything better off the top of my head.

Extras


I start with the first disc of Black Pearl, which features many of the same extras my old DVD featured. We’ve got the option of three, count ‘em, three commentary tracks. First up is a very laid back sit in with Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, who mumble through the track, offering only a few fun factoids and congrats for the cast and crew. You can actually skip this one. The second track features a very child like Keira Knightly (who’s either nervous, drunk, or honestly annoying), a fun enough Jack Davenport (who seems a little uncomfortable with Knightly), and a separately recorded Jerry Bruckheimer (who sounds about as bored with the process as always). You can probably skip this one too, as it features just as much blank space and lack of info as the previous track. The final track features writers Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Jay Wolpert. The track is a bit dry, but it’s the most even and informative of the three.

The film can be watched with a ‘Scoundrels of the Sea’ option, which I was convinced my profile 1.0 wouldn’t play. The factoids are also part of a little ‘game’ where you ‘gather’ coins, which can be ‘cashed-in’ as featurettes later. There are a total of thirty four brief featurettes concerning the real lives of pirates, which can be accessed either through the pop-up trivia track, or through their own menu, which awesomely features not only a ‘play-all’ function, but also a ‘play selected’ function. That’s some sweet interactivity. The featurettes are a bit on the speedy side, but so long as you’re paying attention you’re likely to absorb the facts, which stand in cool contrast to the fanciful phoniness of the film.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Black Pearl disc two begins with an eight part making of documentary entitled ‘An Epic at Sea’. The doc, which was featured on the DVD release, and is not widescreen enhanced or hi-def, is oddly dull. There’s a lot of educational information, but most of the doc runs like a made for TV press kit, that mostly hypes the film up while avoiding too many spoilers. Amongst the bragging and general sprint to the end of the thirty eight minute doc, you stand to learn about the casting, the location scouting, the production and costume design, the make-up effects, the stunts, the CG, and the premiere. Then we have eight more featurettes with a play all option under the title ‘Fly on the Set’. This is a collection of raw, on-set footage, broken into scenes. And these are followed by eight more featurettes, which also seem a bit made-for-TV, but don’t feature a ‘play all’ option. These include closer looks at the characters, the monkey training, pre-viz, and info about the original ride that inspired the film.

Then we’ve got nineteen deleted and alternate scenes (Jesus, and I thought the final cut was over-long), all presented in various forms of completion, and all presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (of varying framing). They last about nineteen minutes, and are mostly made up of scenes of the alternate persuasion. The disc is completed with an eleven minute featurette about a boat, Lee Arenberg’s ten minute video diary, Bruckheimer’s photo diary, a blooper reel, and interactive pirate thing, more behind the scenes stuff, ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’ (from 1968, running almost twenty minutes), an image gallery, and trailers.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
This brings us to the first disc of Dead Man’s Chest. Apparently somebody on DVD production noticed how dull and dry the actors, director, and producer commentaries were on Black Pearl, so they skipped right to the writer’s track, which this time with only Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. The track is ever so slightly self congratulatory, but they’re also honest about addressing some of the more valid criticisms. The fellahs do spend quite a bit of time explaining the characters motivations and plot connections that really didn’t make it onto the screen, pointing to an understanding of their scripts vast shortcomings (though the Empire Strikes Back parallels are tossed aside, as if their script works the same themes so much better). Disc one also features the ‘Liar’s Dice’ game, which like most DVD and Blu-ray games, is a better idea than a genuinely entertaining game.

Dead Man’s Chest disc two begins with ‘Charting the Return’, an in depth, twenty five minute featurette chronicling the pre-production process of both sequels, which is edited to not include much of the third film for spoiler’s sake, considering it hadn’t been released at the time of the second film’s DVD release. The script and time issues are actually planted early, and honestly explored. The utter chaos of the behind the scenes of Return of the King still wins the ‘holy crap’ award for getting things done under the wire, but it appears that naysayers like myself have something specific to latch our criticism onto—these films were made to make a release date, not to be the best films they could be. I can also now understand how these films ended up costing as much as the supposedly did ( At World’s End cost more then the whole of The Lord of the Rings).

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
‘According to Plan’ is a one hour and three minute look at the filming process, built more around staged interviews than ‘Charting the Return’. This is a more theatrical featurette, which still features plenty of raw behind the scenes footage, but on-set footage is generally just more interesting to look at then raw footage of people arguing in office buildings. ‘According to Plan’ becomes a bit of a slog after a while, but the epic scope and epic folly of the production ensures at least a minimal level of interest in even people with lacking attention spans (like me).

‘Captain Jack: Head to Toe’ is a series of brief featurettes, totaling about twenty five minutes and concerning Johnny Depp’s costume, props and make-up, available in a point and click or ‘play all’ mode. ‘Meet Davy Jones’ is what it sounds like—a featurette concerning the character of Davy Jones. I could watch Bill Nighy act in grey pajamas all day, and the special effects achievements of the film are so incredible that I found this, personally, to be the most entertaining extra on the disc. ‘Creating the Kraken’ is more of the same, only concerning the giant scary monster rather then the actor driven monster.

I’ve actually never been on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, so ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’, a featurette concerning the ‘reimagineering’ of the ride to match the films, really means nothing to me. ‘Fly on the Set’, a raw footage look at the ‘bone cage’ sequence doesn’t exactly inspire either after hours of other behind the scenes footage has so effectively numbed my brain. And yet, there’s still so much more to see, like Jerry Bruckheimer’s Photo Diary, footage from the premiere, stills, and bloopers. Then we’ve got a three part featurette concerning the sword training, two more on set featurettes (I don’t know why they’ve been separated from the others), a three part ‘Inside Dead Man’s Chest’ made for TV looking thing (‘Pirate Lore’, ‘Locations and Sets’, and ‘Story and Characters’), and a collection of teasers and trailers from around the world.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Curiously, At World’s End features no commentary tracks at all. The first disc only houses a series of bloopers. Disc two begins with a Blu-ray exclusive ‘Enter the Maelstrom’, an impressively interactive look at just about every aspect of the filming of the Maelstrom sequence. Unlike most interactive menu set ups, these menus glide over a six minute, time lapse camera look at the construction of the set and its pieces, as Bruckheimer audibly walks us through the process (on an audio track that can be turned off). During the time lapse several icons appear in different sections of the screen, that when clicked lead to specific featurettes. Very cool, and presented in hi-def and 5.1 surround.

‘Keith and the Captain’ is a featurette concerned with the pairing of Johnny Depp and Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who was a chief inspiration behind the character of Jack Sparrow. It’s sweet and short (under five minutes), and I think I got every third word Richard’s spoke. ‘Tale of Many Jacks’ is another short one (also just under five minutes), in this case focused on the early Davy Jones Locker scene were Jack and many bits of his id interact, and the little Jacks that appear on big Jack’s shoulder. They don’t go into the poorly constructed brig scene. ‘The World of Chow Yun Fat’ (only four minutes) doesn’t make up for the film’s squandering of Fat’s skills, but is a nice look at the superstar for unfamiliar viewers. ‘Anatomy of a Scene: The Maelstrom’ was, I’m sure, a fine addition to the DVD, but is a little moot with the presence of the Blu-ray exclusive interactive extra. At twenty minutes there is some more insight into the digital effects, but otherwise not much new.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
‘Pirate Maestro’ (ten and a half minutes) focuses on Hans Zimmer’s scores. Again, despite my issues with repetition in famous composer’s scores, these are fantastic scores, perhaps the best in Zimmer’s catalogue. Huge credit is due to Zimmer and his little helpers for using untraditional instruments. I noticed the untraditional instruments Hans, and they made me very happy. I only wish some credit had been paid to Ennio Morricone. Zimmer’s quoting of Morricone’s ‘Frank’ theme from Once Upon a Time in the West rubbed me the wrong way, not because of its sentiment, but because of its near exact rendition. It is pretty neat that Verbinksi played the guitar on the track though.

Oh my God, isn’t there a way to turn off Jolly Roger?

Under ‘Masters of Design’ you’ll find five featurettes concern various art design aspects of the film. These concern the production of the spinney map, the creature design (specifically the groady fish pirates), creepy Singapore and her pirates, Keith Richard’s costume, and the book of the Pirate Code Book. The featuettes are closed out with a look at the writing of the ‘Hoist the Colours’ theme that opens the film, and ‘Inside the Brethren Court’, a narrative explanation of each of the pirate ‘lords’, each accessed through a click on their ‘piece of eight’.

Next up are two hi-def deleted scenes with optional Gore Verbinski commentary. One scene features Pintel and Ragetti explaining the plot a bit, and the other Jack and Barbosa battling over the ship’s wheel like children. The latter scene is actually quite amusing. Verbinski’s commentary is almost unbelievably calculated and obviously pre-planned.

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Overall


So the promise of the Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t quite fulfilled, but even at their worst these films are exceedingly imaginative. If only the talent had the time to develop a fully fleshed out plot for their second and third films I honestly believe these marvels of style over substance could’ve rivalled The Lord of the Rings. I suppose in the absence of critical acclaim the creators will just have to make do with special effects Oscars, and claim to some of the highest spots on the all time, world wide box-office. There’s nothing new about these Blu-ray discs, so don’t bother if you already own them (unless you really, really want a cardboard box to put them in), but even non-fans might want to give a rental a spin, because these might be the most impressive discs I’ve ever seen, from an A/V standpoint. The extras are pretty inconsistent, but I don’t think we’re missing much of anything when it comes to the making-of process.

Curse of the Black Pearl: 7/10
Dead Man's Chest: 4/10
At World's End: 5/10

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray releases and resized for the page.


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