Although it may seem like heresy to say it, I have to admit that I like the Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy more than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, I love both. I also wouldn’t argue for a second that POTC is better than LOTR, it’s just that I like and enjoy one more than the other. Sure, some of this comes down to personal preference. It’s no secret that pirates (in a classical sense) and the open sea appeal to me, and that I’m a huge Disney fan, but there’s more to it than that. I’ve read the Lord of the Rings books many times, including all of the appendices. I’m a big fan. But given the choice of what to watch, nine times out of ten I’ll pick Pirates. My hope is that, in addition to proving that I’m crazy, this essay will encourage you to give Pirates of the Caribbean another chance, with an open mind, and will help you appreciate some things you might have missed before.
I could just as easily say that I like the Pirates films more than the Back to the Future trilogy, the Indiana Jones series, or the Star Wars saga (none of which would be true), or any other movie series, but it makes the most sense to pair it with Lord of the Rings because they have so much in common. In many ways, these two film trilogies dominated the 2000’s, with the Lord of the Rings movies running from 2001-2003 and the Pirates movies in 2003, 2006 and 2007 (while the Harry Potter series quietly defined the decade in the background). Both are trilogies, with additional films on the way (POTC: On Stranger Tides opens in May with a potential fifth and sixth film in the future, while The Hobbit, having been split into two films, is set to start filming shortly). Both trilogies made almost the same amount of money, with about $2.7 billion in grosses for POTC and $2.9 billion for LOTR. Both were nominated for many Academy Awards, but interestingly each only received one acting nomination, and both were for the first film of their respective trilogy. Both feature predominately British casts, with an American actor (with an English accent) in the lead role, and both feature Orlando Bloom, making him the actor with the highest combined film grosses of the decade. Both trilogies were big risks for their respective studios, and both risks paid off enormously.
The two series also share a host of superficial storytelling similarities. Both are set in fantasy universes containing mystical creatures, monsters and magic. In both stories, a main character dies and is resurrected. Both feature reluctant heroes, swept up into events far greater than they had imagined. They both twist and turn, attempting to balance character with epic battles. In short, they both follow the standard trappings of most epic motion picture trilogies. All of this is on the surface, however. The two stories are drastically different in terms of setting, tone, style, characterization and delivery.
It would be very easy to simply say that I like POTC more than LOTR, and leave it at that. My point in this is not to try to argue that one is better than the other, or to change anyone’s opinion. But I hope by going into this amount of detail, and covering as many points as I can, that it might encourage people to give the Pirates series another look (especially with a new film coming soon), especially if they quit after being disappointed by Dead Man’s Chest. Maybe you can find something in here that piques your interest. Perhaps even Johnny Depp could read it, since I just read this morning he was disappointed in the 2nd and 3rd films in the trilogy.
“You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters.”
At the beginning of the 2000’s, Disney was looking for something new. The early 1990’s had seen Disney at the top of the animation game (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King), but by the late 90’s the Disney brand seemed to be fading at the box office. Pixar had begun to emerge as the dominant force in animation, and Disney’s live action offerings in the latter part of the decade, despite several real gems, had failed to impress. The Mouse needed something new that would put them back on the map, would get people talking, and would have a strong link to the Disney brand. They began looking at adapting some of their well known rides and attractions into feature films. Unfortunately, their first two attempts were flops (the vastly underrated Mission to Mars and the truly horrible The Country Bears). So it was that Disney turned to their two most iconic rides for inspiration. One was thought to be a sure-fire success, with its popular lead actor and with a ride providing a perfect movie setup. That movie, of course, was The Haunted Mansion.
Meanwhile, the competition was starting to take risks. In 2001, New Line Cinema released The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings to a public that can only be described as “obsessed”. Despite the built-in fanbase from the books, the LOTR trilogy was an enormous risk for the struggling New Line. They took the rights to one of the most popular fantasy trilogies of all time and gave them to a man who was known mostly for the silliest types of gross-out horror films. Peter Jackson, in turn, gave them a masterpiece. It took 14 months to film, and cost more than $300 million in the end, and had it failed it would have sunk New Line and killed the prospects of big-budget fantasy films for decades. It was a time to take risks, and by the time The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003 it would face big (if indirect) competition from the The Return of the King, both of the Matrix sequels, Terminator 3, and X-Men 2. It was time for Disney to step up.
It’s hard to relate the amount of risk Disney took in making this film. They had never done anything like this before. With a budget of $140 million, it was by far the most expensive, live-action movie they had ever made (rumor has it that when Michael Eisner asked, “Why does it have to cost so much?” Jerry Bruckheimer’s reply was, “Because that’s what your competition is spending.”). The biggest name in the cast was known mostly for weird and artsy movies, and had never carried a blockbuster before. Everyone was aware that pirate movies had long been cursed in Hollywood, and the production and failure of Cutthroat Island had become legendary. But one of the biggest risks for Disney might have been on the artistic side. POTC would be dark and gritty, scary, violent, and completely unlike anything they had produced. In the end, it would become the first Disney film with a PG-13 rating.
Of course, in the end the gamble paid off. Not only did they end up with the fourth highest grossing film of the year, but the sequels currently sit at numbers 4 and 9 on the all-time highest-grossing films list. The trilogy was nominated for 11 Academy awards, including one for that interesting choice of a lead actor. The POTC trilogy has been a breath of fresh air for Disney, and had allowed them to stretch their wings both financially and artistically in the years since. And with a new film coming soon, there seem to be no signs of stopping.
“You spent three days lying on a beach drinking rum.” “Welcome to the Caribbean, love.”
The POTC movies have had to strike an interesting balance in terms of the setting of their stories. When half of your title is your setting, you have a lot to live up to, and it’s the first place to begin. The movies take place in a timeframe of approximately 1720-1750, with an interesting mix between history and fantasy. The Caribbean evokes images of beautiful beaches and clear water, of rum and sun. Add to that the images evoked from the ride: drunken pirates asleep with the pigs, a fort under attack, a dog with jail keys, mounds of treasure and a burning city. All of that gave the filmmakers a deep pool of images to draw from. It stands in stark contrast to the Lord of the Rings, where everything is explicitly described and detailed. (Have you read the appendices at the end of the books? Crazy!) I remember how much discussion was given to pronunciations of Elvish dialogue, and runes and symbols and costumes in LOTR. And as impressive and amazing as the level of immersion is for those films, they’ve always felt a bit constrained to me. Every image and setting and location felt like it was trying to live up to expectations, and while they were hugely successful for the most part, I feel like it weighed the movie down. For me, the setting of POTC has a feeling of “making it up as we go”, which allows the films to breathe. Having so much to draw from allowed the crew to dream up some amazing images, and shoot in some gorgeous locations. The variety in setting also allows for a rich range of characters, from pirates both good and bad, to the Royal Navy, to island cannibals, tavern wenches, lords and ladies, and even to other corners of the globe in the later films.
“You best start believing in ghost stories… you’re in one!”
Draped over the high seas setting of the films is a layer of fantasy. Throughout the course of the story we encounter cursed Aztec gold, a mysterious chest containing the beating heart of Davy Jones, a crew of part-men part-sea creatures, a heathen goddess trapped in a human body, a monstrous mythical sea monster, and the land of the dead. At times this gives the movies the feel of a cross between a high seas adventure and a monster movie. This is especially so in the first two films. For me, by the end of the third film, the fantasy nature of the story had become entwined with the historical nature of the story, and the melding of the two seemed completely natural.
Some people have a hard time dealing with the fantasy elements of the story. When most people think of Pirates of the Caribbean, they don’t think of monsters and curses (though there is a curse mentioned at the beginning of the original ride). But why, then, do people have no trouble with dragons, elves, dwarves, magic rings, wizards, dark lords, orcs, etc. in Lord of the Rings? I think it has something to do with LOTR taking place in an obviously different universe from our own, where as POTC is a “historical fantasy”, taking a real time period and adding fantasy elements. We can argue the merits of making a fantasy pirates movie, but in the end that’s the story the filmmakers chose to tell, and I think there are some compelling reasons to accept that. There is a long history of “historical fantasy” stories, though the tales that seem to have the most inspiration for POTC are those of Odysseus. The Iliad takes a (debatably) historical war, and adds in a large helping of myth and fantasy. If you can believe (in the context of the story) that Achilles was dipped by his nymph mother into the river Styx to make him invulnerable, then you can accept a chest of gold cursed by the Aztec gods that turns men into skeletons in the moonlight.
I think the biggest divide for most people appeared with Dead Man’s Chest. It was easy to go along with the curse from the first movie, because it was only one fantasy element in an otherwise “realistic” setting. But the second film let its fantasy flag fly, and I think many people were put off by that, which when combined with the labyrinthine plot of the final movie turned people off to the series. But let’s compare the fantasy elements of the second and third film with that of Odysseus’s second adventure, the Odyssey. After all, Captain Jack Sparrow is a hero out of the Odysseus mold, both famed for their intelligence and cunning. Among Odysseus’s encounters on his ten year journey home are some people, places and creatures that have direct parallels to POTC. Odysseus encounters a group of cannibals, the Laestrygonians, just as Jack encounters the Pelegostos, his own group of cannibals. Odysseus is forced to navigate between two monsters. One, Scylla, is a sea monster with 12 tentacles for legs and many heads each containing rows of teeth, in which it is easy to see aspects of the Kraken. The other, Charybdis, is a whirlpool, much like the one in which the final battle of At World’s End takes place. Odysseus encounters Aeolus, the god of the winds, in his encounters, as well as the nymph Calypso. POTC has its on Calypso, a heathen goddess of the sea, with control over the winds and the waves. And of course, both stories feature an important trip to the land of the dead. I point all of this out not to necessarily compare POTC with the Odyssey (though I definitely think the writers of POTC were inspired by the Homeric myths), but to say simply that these are fantasy movies, not historical movies, despite their setting. If you came to the Pirates movies expecting an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, that’s no different than going to Lord of the Rings expecting Braveheart, or going to Harry Potter and expecting a high school movie like Dead Poets Society. It’s not the filmmaker’s job to appease your expectations but to tell the story they wish to tell, as in the end they have no control over your expectations. (This is the main problem that people seem to have with all sorts of movies, including the Star Wars prequels and the latest Indiana Jones movie.) Unless the film is an adaptation of a previous story, the writers are free to do what they want. You could be much better served by enjoying the story they’ve chosen to tell instead of wishing they’d chosen to tell something different.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the quality of the effects when talking about the fantasy nature of these films. Disney spent more money on the first film than they had ever spent on a live action movie before, and the final film is the most expensive film ever made by any studio. That’s not to say that you can just throw money around and get believable special effects, but the willingness to commit to the films in that way certainly paid off. In my opinion, Dead Man’s Chest is one of the top 3 or 4 visual effects showpieces in all of movie history. This is one area where I feel that the Pirates movies, especially the final two, far outpace the Lord of the Rings movies. The motion/performance capture and animation of Davy Jones is the best that has been seen on film, and the ability to put that computer animated character into such a variety of sets and lighting schemes and weather conditions without making him look fake is truly an accomplishment. One of the biggest hurdles to a fantasy movie is suspension of disbelief, and it is very easy to be pulled out of a fantasy world because of an unconvincing effect. The effects are also very well staged, recalling the effects work of Ray Harryhausen (with an obvious homage to his work with the release of Calypso in At World’s End). It’s very easy for a film to draw attention to its effects, but I feel like the pirates movies do very little of that. Of course, there are huge special effects moments, but generally a computer generated character is still a character and not a prop. When the audience can identify with and accept two pirate skeletons locked in a duel to the death, a crew of fish people, and a tragic villain with the face of an octopus, along with a giant sea monster and other fantastical creatures, that’s the true test of special effects.
“I love this song!”
One key component in any film is the music. It’s the glue that holds a film together, the final unmentioned character that completes the ensemble cast. This is especially true in epic adventure stories and fantasy films. Howard Shore composed a brilliant and emotional score for the Lord of the Rings series, which won him two Academy Awards (plus one for original song). It’s hard to imagine any of the best moments of those films without that amazing score. But as great as the LOTR score is, I have to say I like the music from Pirates of the Caribbean more. A lot of it comes down to personal taste, I know, but I think Hans Zimmer’s score for POTC is much more creative and much more character driven than that of LOTR, particularly in At World’s End.
Howard Shore’s score is very location based. He does a great job of evoking the emotion of a place or of the peoples who live in that place. It’s easy to picture the Shire when you have that theme to attach it to. That being said, the scope of the films, and of his score, tends to cause the characters to get lost. Sure, there’s a theme for the Fellowship, but musically the characters and their corresponding score moments tend to reflect where they came from instead of who they are. Perhaps it is just a natural side effect of having such a big story to tell. Hans Zimmer, on the other hand, writes for particular characters. Many of the major characters have their own musical cues, Jack actually has several. And they do such a great job of capturing their character. When you picture Jack Sparrow, it’s easy to hear that slightly tipsy cello theme, mimicking his mannerisms.
What I enjoy the most, though, is the way the score evolved over the course of the three films. The Curse of the Black Pearl opens memorably with a young Elizabeth Swann softly singing “Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, a pirates life for me”. It’s a great moment, a tall ship glides through the fog while a young voice sings the famous Disney song (which was written specifically for the ride in 1967). It conjures up a lot of memories, and leaves no doubt as to the inspiration for the film, and the song weaves its way through the story, giving an idealistic view of pirate life. Elizabeth teaches it to Jack midway through the first film, and it provides his final line in both the first and third film (as well as being sung by Elizabeth’s child after the credits of At World’s End, making a great bookend for the trilogy). Hans Zimmer composed the themes for The Curse of the Black Pearl, but left the overall composition to a crew of composers, due to the short time period he was given. The result was a rather ordinary score with fun themes, which relied heavily on synthesizers. There are some truly great moments, and it’s tough to imagine Captain Jack’s awesome and hilarious entrance without that wonderful music, but the score generally fell flat.
With the sequels, Zimmer was allowed to take full control and to expand his musical scope. The new cast of characters and settings of the films gave him a rich palette to draw from. He used a vast array of instrumentation for the sequels, many of which are designed to conjure up a particular emotional attachment. The beautiful, tragic and haunting music box theme for Davy Jones and Calypso is particularly memorable. He also drew inspiration from some of the classic film music stylings of the past. The parley scene near the end of At World’s End has a great Ennio Morricone, spaghetti-western feel to it, and his Godfather-style mandolin version of “Hoist the Colours” is the perfect match for the Brethren Court sequences.
But it is “Hoist the Colours” that is Zimmer’s greatest achievement. It’s very difficult to compose a song for inclusion in a movie and then to incorporate that song into the score. It’s something that very few composers have pulled off (one of the few successes being John William’s “When You’re Alone” from another pirate movie, Hook). The song serves an important plot point at the beginning of At World’s End. As civilians are being rounded up and executed without trial, a young boy begins to sing this song before being hung. It then spreads to the others on the gallows and eventually to everyone waiting to be executed. What starts as a mournful song before death grows into a defiant chorus and a call to action (a call that will be answered by the Brethren Court). The lyrics (as written by the film’s authors) tell the story of the first Brethren Court and the imprisonment of the sea goddess, Calypso. And the music winds its way throughout the film, in varying styles and emotions. It reaches its climax at the end of Elizabeth’s speech, as the pirate armada hoists their flags and pennants, ready to fight. It’s the sort of inspirational moment that you find in many epics, with a rousing speech before a final battle, but the music makes all the difference. It’s the music I find myself humming or whistling these days, without even knowing it.
(I’m also pleased that the newest film will also be scored by Hans Zimmer, and that he will be expanding his horizons even more by using the Spanish guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela in his music.)
“Same story, different versions, and all are true.”
The Pirates of the Caribbean has always felt to me to be collaborative effort. This isn’t always the case with a lot of films. For example, James Cameron always maintains a tight control over his stories. The Lord of the Rings series is most definitely Peter Jackson’s vision, and while he worked with several other writers on his team, and a huge cast of talented actors, it still feels like Peter Jackson’s story. I think the fact that POTC is an original story, versus LOTR being an adaptation, really helps the movie feel fresh. There’s certainly a lot to be said for not knowing what’s coming. But even more than that, I would say that the POTC series feels like an improvisational troupe, traveling around telling stories. That’s something that holds a lot of appeal to me, personally, though I can see why it wouldn’t sit as well with some people. A lot of credit for that goes to Jerry Bruckheimer’s production of the movie and Gore Verbinski’s direction. They created the atmosphere and the lens through which the story would be told. They set the stage.
To me, most of the credit needs to go to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. When the project was first being conceived, Elliott and Rossio were brought in to give the story some life. It was considered to be too much of a “straight pirate movie” (which I know would have appealed to some people). They decided to take inspiration from the ride, and the curse mentioned at its beginning. The first film was designed to be a stand-alone story, one that could be viewed on its own but could still leave the possibility open for a sequel. After the success of the first, the next two movies were written as two halves to one story. It’s interesting to me how different the three films are in terms of story. The Curse of the Black Pearl is a standard adventure story, with a kidnapped “damsel in distress” and a treasure. Dead Man’s Chest is a chase movie, in the vein of the Indiana Jones films, with competing groups hunting down a mythical object. At World’s End is a war film, with all the strategic maneuvering and battle setup you would expect from any classic war piece.
But throughout the storytelling changes, the intricate, labyrinthine plot (more on that in a bit), the action set-pieces and the special effects, what shines through the most are the characters. Elliott and Rossio gave the characters satisfying arcs with intriguing developments along the way. To me, an enjoyable and interesting group of characters are the most important part of the story, and the most memorable. It’s especially true for the POTC movies, because most of the plot is driven by character. The reason that the plot of the second and third movies is so complex is because most of the action of the film is based on the separate and conflicting motivations of the individual characters. There is a big difference in a movie where the action of the story is happening because of the characters and not just to the characters, but it only works if the characters are well defined. An important part of that definition in the Pirates films is the use of language and humor. It makes a character feel more real and unique to have their own style of language. It’s something that has to be a collaboration between the writers, director and actor. And of course, there’s the humor (including one spectacularly subtle masturbation joke). It’s so tied in with the characters and the language that they’re inseparable. The funny lines and moments never feel like “jokes” but instead feel like what the characters would naturally say.
“If I may lend a machete to your intellectual thicket”
As for the plot, much has been said about its complexity. Many people seemingly found the sequels hard to follow, with too many twists and turns, and a complicated backstory. I find this viewpoint to be extremely interesting. The Lord of the Rings series (and the books) are very complex, though in a different way. The plot of LOTR is fairly straightforward, but the universe is extremely complex. Every character has several names (Strider, Aragorn, Ellesar, the Dunadan, etc.), there are many races of creatures factions of people to keep track of, there are a number of magical items and various locations to keep track of and there are several competing storylines to balance. (I remember spending over an hour explaining the story so far of the first two movies to my mother before a showing of Return of the King.) I think this is another example of the danger of expectations. A lot of people enjoyed the mild twists and turns of the first movie as part of the larger action/comedy experience. With the sequels, however, people remembered the fun they had with the first film and wanted an action/comedy for a summer escape. They got that but they didn’t expect to have to put in some work to keep up. (A similar thing happened with the Matrix movies. The people who loved Matrix: Reloaded, with its unending car chase and unconvincing action sequences, hated Matrix: Revolutions with its complicated plot and (relatively) heady philosophical musings. I lost count of how many people I knew demanded a 4th Matrix movie just to explain the 3rd.) I, for one, applaud the makers of the Pirates movies for requiring the viewers to think a little, and to pay attention, and for not dumbing the story down to just being an excuse for action set-pieces and bits of comedy. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some pacing issues with Dead Man’s Chest, but having watched it repeatedly I can’t find anything I would want to cut out.
The story (of the sequels) isn’t actually that difficult to follow, if you focus on the characters’ motivations as the driving force of the plot. I think it can be a little jarring for some people when there isn’t a clear hero or villain, and everyone is out to meet their own ends, when everyone is attempting to manipulate and maneuver each other. We get several fantastic “Mexican standoffs” throughout the story, as these conflicts come to a head. The writers even have the characters discuss their motivations and backstory on several occasions, without making it feel like the exposition express. A big problem that people had, in my opinion, was that Dead Man’s Chest is only intended to be half of a story. The sequels were filmed simultaneously, and are two films telling one story. Some of the plot points in Dead Man’s Chest don’t get fully explained until At World’s End (Davy Jones’ backstory, for instance). It’s shocking to me the number of professional movie critics who, in their reviews of the sequels (including the newest, On Stranger Tides), simply said “I don’t understand the plot”.
For me, the best illustration of the complexity of both the plot and the storytelling is the parley/negotiation scene before the final battle in At World’s End. Barbossa, Jack, and newly elected Pirate King Elizabeth are meeting with Davey Jones, Cutler Beckett and Will Turner on a sandbar between the two opposing fleets. Will has led the Beckett and Jones, along with the military, to the gathering of pirates with the help of Jack, who had made a deal with Beckett and had given Will his compass as a means to find them. Jack wants to kill Davey Jones and become the captain of the Flying Dutchman, so that he can sail the seas for eternity (and also square the debt that he owes Jones). Will wants Jones dead so that he can free his father. The two had reached an agreement that Will will help Jack kill Jones and in turn Jack will free Will’s father. Beckett wants the pirates wiped out. Elizabeth wants to fight for all the things that the pirates stand for, to protect those she cares about, and to get revenge for Beckett’s murder of her father. Barbossa wants to release the sea goddess, Calypso, so that she can destroy the navy and allow the pirates to return to their pirating ways without interference, and also to meet his end of the bargain that allowed Calypso to bring him back to life. Davy Jones wants Calypso murdered for betraying his love, and he wants Jack’s life as repayment for the debt owed to him. It’s a great scene, that has a lot going on, and the more that you know about it, the more you notice. As they negotiate swapping Will for Jack, which will seemingly further Beckett and Jones’ plan but will actually further Will, Elizabeth and Jack’s plan, much of the communication between the players is done either in code or silently. Elizabeth warns Will that if he kills Jones he will have to take his place as captain of the Dutchman, saying “I fear that cause is lost”. Will replies, “No cause is lost if there is but one fool to follow it,” with a look to Jack, knowing their plan. As Davy Jones speaks to Jack about his debt, Will and Elizabeth communicate without words, as he lets her know this was the plan all along. Once she catches on, she proposes an exchange of Will for Jack, allowing Jack aboard the Dutchman to hopefully find the heart and kill Jones, and bringing Will back to the pirates’ side to fight. As they all walk away Will questions how Elizabeth came to be the Pirate King, to which she replies “Courtesy of Jack.” Will answers, “Maybe he really does know what he’s doing.”
It’s a big payoff for those who have spent three movies paying attention, watching for more than the action, and most importantly, getting to know the characters. I’m actually going to spend most of the rest of this essay on the characters, because they are the best lens through which to view this story, and provide the most insight into the films themselves.