a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dissecting Pirates

Spoilers ahead.

So I finally saw it, and I generally liked it. Spectacle goes a long way with me; put the money on the screen, show me something new, and you're halfway there.

And some of these sequences really sung. Escape from cannibal island in a cage made of bones? Great. Swordfight in a waterwheel? Brilliant. Kraken, tearing apart a ship? Fierce.

I have to give it a solid B+.

Why not an A?


They screwed up Captain Jack Sparrow.

In the first movie, he's fun. Sure, he's drunk a lot of the time, and you wouldn't trust him with your 3-year-old, but you wouldn't be afraid to turn your back on him.

But in Dead Man's Chest, he's different. It's not just because he's sober and scared most of the movie, though maybe that changed the way Johnny played him; to me, Johnny should always play Jack like he's very drunk.

The biggest problem is that suddenly, in the second movie, Jack Sparrow has become unlikable. A selfish jerk. A guy that you really don't want to spend time with.

And I get the point of this - in theory. It's all supposed to set up the last two beats, in which he redeems himself by coming back to the ship, and then Elizabeth cuffs him to the ship because she's still pissed at him. Storywise it works, for the story they are trying to tell.

(Though I still think the story is still too complex. This is a Disney pirate movie. If your average 9-year-old doesn't get a lot of this -- and he won't -- it's too complex).

But Jack Sparrow being a jerk really isn't any fun. We're never rooting for him to acheive his mission at all during the script; indeed, it's his own fault he's in trouble, since he made this deal with Davy Jones in the first place.

Instead, he's an antagonist for most of the piece. Which granted is an ambitious story choice, but -- seriously-- I don't think it's the movie that audiences really want.

In the first movie, Jack was selfish, and he had his own agenda... but he wasn't trying to hurt people in his life (such as taking action to doom people to an endless life on a ghost ship, as we get here) just to save himself.

If anything, the Jack in the second movie should be LESS selfish -- because c'mon, these are people who risked their lives (and indeed, have gotten into serious trouble) to save his. The character growth that Jack goes through at the very end of the second movie is character growth that would have more logically taken place by the end of the first.

In the first movie, we like him despite his flaws. In the second, we really don't like him much. And that's a major, major problem, because liking Jack, and having fun just watching him, are key elements to the success of this franchise.

We come into Dead Man's Chest already liking the characters. All they need is to have a cool adventure together. Not unconvincingly pitted against each other through an overcomplex tale.

So it's a credit to good acting and some great special effects that it gets the B+ from me, because I think the Jack Sparrow thing is really a big flaw here. Hopefully, in the third movie, his becoming a nice guy will stick.

Or hopefully the kraken at least swallowed a few barrels of rum, and we'll get drunk Jack back again.

Otherwise, I'm not clear why Davy Jones' heart could go into a jar of earth, and it wouldn't hurt it. Or why Davy Jones would bury his own heart someplace he can't go.

Or how Norrington, stranded on a deserted island with the heart and no boat, is able to make it all the way back to the evil British guy before the longboat reaches the voodoo chick....


At 9:23 AM, Anonymous kristen said...

Yeah... I tried not to pick apart the logistics when I watched it, but I guess you raise a point there at the end -- that movies like this, action films, are all *about* logistics. It's not really fair to viewers to put all your energy into an intricately choreographed chase sequence and then have nothing left over in you for the plot.

That's kinda how this felt to me. Rather low on plot, but chock full of set pieces.

One thing that really bugged me was the girl - Elizabeth, is that her name? - sitting on the sand throwing stones at the 3 guys while they're sword-fighting. Why spend 2 films building someone up into a tomboy only to have her act so passively female? Oh, right - because she needs to be distracted so those goons can steal the chest. Why not give her something better to do, like join the sword fight?

I wasn't a huge fan of the original either. Though I seem to recall all 3 characters having more "character" in the first film. In this one they're all somewhat muddy.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I liked it, not perfect, but it was fun.

Read a bit of Part 3, I liked how they started it. Also, they've cast Chow-Yun Fat (sp?) as a Pirate in Part 3, which is cool.

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous Chris Soth said...


And you're so right about too complex a story. And yes, fun set pieces. So, ok, fun, but flawed and too long by at least half an hour. Don't know about Jack Sparrow, but he wasn't as fun as the first time for sure.


At 8:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My problem with Jack is that he's running away through the whole movie, a 180 from the original where he wasn't afraid to face anything head on: undead pirates, the entire British navy, his own hanging...

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Steve Barr said...

I agree about the change in Jack (and that it's a problem), but I think you're wrong wrong wrong about this:

"(Though I still think the story is still too complex. This is a Disney pirate movie. If your average 9-year-old doesn't get a lot of this -- and he won't -- it's too complex)."

A very large portion of the record-breaking box office for this movie comes from repeat viewing. And repeat viewing comes from having a very complex plot that is nevertheless still internally consistent.

At 11:41 AM, Anonymous phillip said...

Yep. Jack Sociopath was the biggest problem for me too.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I don't think a large portion of the record-breaking box office came from repeat viewing. I think repeat viewing made up a very small percentage of the first 7 days intake for this film.

I think the huge first-week box office was driven by the simple fact that a hell of a lot of people loved the first movie, and wanted to spend time with the characters again. Pure and simple.

(Plus there really isn't much out in the theaters right now to siphon off anyone).

I think repeat viewing is going to be what ultimately decides whether or not this threatens the $500 million U.S. box office level.

But are you saying that the fact that the story is overcomplex is good, because it is making audiences go back and see it? That seems a big cynical and money-hungry to me (which defines Hollywood, of course, but shouldn't really figure into the arguments for whether a movie succeeds on its own merits).

For every person who wants to go back and see it again to pick up things that they didn't see before, there is someone who wasn't satisfied by a film experience in which the storytelling was often muddy and hard to figure out.

There are pros and cons to storytelling styles like the ones the writers used here (I've read their own discussions of it, in which they talk of trying a mosiac-like, video-game-story-like structure).

But it just seems to me that, in a hyper-mainstream movie like this where large chunks of the audience just aren't appreciating it, then maybe this wasn't the type of movie to try this storytelling structure on.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

"I don't think it's the movie that audiences really want."

Maybe. Maybe not. I've said it before though and I say it again, while it may not be a flawless film, "the wallet of the viewer is louder than the voice of the critic."

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well, the true test is going to be on how the third Pirates movie opens.

Matrix 2 opened better than the Matrix did. Doesn't mean it was a better movie -- quite the reverse. It just meant that there was a huge wanna-see factor there for Matrix 2, based entirely on the quality of the first film.

When Matrix 3 opened, the numbers dropped considerably. The wanna-see factor was way down, even though Matrix 3 (whatever it was actually called) was arguably better than the second one.

It's the same for Dead Man's Chest; it could have been great, or awful, and the numbers wouldn't have been all that different opening weekend, because they were entirely based on sheer desire for the sequel.

I think the third Pirates movie is going to do very well next May. But I don't think it's going to have a better opening weekend than Pirates 2 did, because I don't think the wannasee factor is going to be quite as high.

At 3:54 PM, Blogger Arnie said...

I saw it this weekend -- and until I read your post, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with the movie. All the characters were wrong and I didn't feel sympathetic to any of them. All were working for selfish gain -- the only scene that really made sense was the three-way sword fight. Impressive movie, but was s typical "middle" story.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Hate to argue with you, Scott, but the cliffhanger pretty much guarantees the wannasee factor will be there if for no other reason than morbid curiosity. I don't know that it will break it's own records, but I bet it's not too shabby.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Oh, it'll do $80-$100 million opening weekend. I just don't think it'll do $140 million opening weekend.

At 6:32 PM, Blogger James Patrick Joyce said...

The character growth that Jack goes through at the very end of the second movie is character growth that would have more logically taken place by the end of the first

I’d go even further. I’d say that it’s character growth that he must have already gone through.

Even at the beginning of the second movie, the crew is complaining because they haven’t done any real pirating, lately… Jack hasn’t been preying upon innocent people.

At one point, he says something to the effect of “Where’s the monkey? I want to shoot something.”… ie, something that won’t be hurt, by being shot.

That’s the Jack we already know. Sure, he seems to be selfish and piratey, in the first movie, but every single apparently selfish act turns out to be in benefit of someone else, as well. Jack never does a single thing which ultimately works against the other protags (except when Will or Elizabeth does something bull-headed).

In the first movie, we like him despite his flaws. In the second, we really don't like him much

You’ve hit it, precisely. More than that… I didn’t believe him, much, either.

What about Elizabeth? She becomes despicable, in DMC. Elizabeth is selfish and nasty, Will is selfish and nasty. They both ultimately care little for Jack, which (despite Jack’s turn for the antagonist-y) makes them no better them him. And what about Norrington? I loved the complexity of his character, in the first movie. In the second he degenerates to a cardboard, selfish (again) left-over of that original character.

The only two consistent characters are Swann and the monkey. They both act essentially as logical, believable extensions of their characters, in new situations.

I can’t even fathom Elizabeth’s new-found treachery. The honour and intelligence which defined Norrington, are gone-- Pffft!; Will is committed to a meaningless task, since the only resolution to their problem would be via direct word to the Crown….

This fight on the beach, Jack’s sacrificial crew, Elizabeth’s cold, calculated betrayal, Norrington’s dishonourable, cowardly, idiotic behaviour, etc, only make sense because the characters have all been subsumed to the story, where in the first movie, the story seemed to spring out of the characters.

In the first movie, everyone is working in self-sacrificing and/or altruistic ways. Even Jack encounters problems that would be avoided if he simply acted in the way your average pirate would.

In the second movie, everyone is working for selfish and/or downright nasty and insupportable reasons. Except Governor Swann. Either a character’s goal is selfish/childish, or they engage in selfish/childish actions to attain it. Or both.

And Barbossa was an active bad guy. He attacked Port Royal. He kidnapped Elizabeth, attacked the Royal Navy, tried to kill Elizabeth and Jack and Will and many others… etc, etc, etc.

Davy Jones? He killed some unrelated seaman, in unrelated boats. He had Will fall into his hands, then lost him (never with any actual intent to kill him). He threatened Jack with a future-curse… which Jack fully deserves. He’s never any danger to anyone on land, really.

Barbossa’s an active threat which must be dealt with, by everyone, in CBP.
Davy Jones’s Kraken and the danger it potentially poses, in the future, are the threats, in DMC. In the story, the only major character it directly threatens is Sparrow.

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Louis said...

If you suspended your disbelief enough to take in the actual character of Davy Jones and his ship of undead people, and the fact that he was physically able to remove his heart from his chest and have it still beating, then I don't know why you're so worried about it being able to go into a jar of dirt without it being harmed.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger Jameson said...

I disagree about Jack being unlikable -- or at least more unlikable. I think what's consistent is that his absolute first priority is always self-preservation. In some cases, the consequences are higher (like Will being traded to Davy Jones's crew) but Jack isn't any different, just the circumstances he finds himself in.

Plus, if we know Jack, we know he always figures out a plan. So, there's no reason to think he actually expected to leave Will there forever. He also knows Will is very resilient and has learned a lot from Jack, so Will is likely to devise a plan for his own escape.

Certainly, the stakes are intended to be higher, so that Elizabeth can truly be surprised and upset when she discovers Jack did this, but I don't think we're supposed to hate Jack for it, unless we just never understood Jack in the first place.

At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, the character of Jack Sparrow was different. I liked the movie, but thought his character should have been written closer to how he was in CotBP.

At 9:28 AM, Anonymous The Food Virgin said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person whose opinion was the same as yours, Scott.

Mostly, I wished for some kind of overarching goal for people to aim for (or against). Without that, it felt like lots of chesspieces running around a board with no specific target in mind.

At 2:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will's father was thrown overboard, shackled, into the sea while cursed from the aztec treasure. Davey Jones said to him to work for him for 100 years and he would free him from his underwater prison. He still looks human because the curse of the black pearl was lifted only recently. I wish that stuff like that was shown, there is a lot to put together. I think that Jack Sparrow was the same, his character was established in the first one and he still moves and talks like he's drunk, i had to look for it though, his character just isn't reestablished/retold. I hope theres more of him in the 3rd film than there was in the second.


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