On Watching All of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean Films

I figured since I’m writing colonial-era Caribbean fantasy (read “pirate fantasy”), I should go back and watch Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series again.

It’s funny to me, because pirates are such a staple of pop culture, but there really aren’t a lot of pirate films out there. When I Googled “best pirate films,” I got a list of Errol Flynn flicks from the 1930s–1950s like The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, of course, and then like The Goonies and Muppet Treasure Island.

I’ve seen Curse of the Black Pearl a bunch of times, but it’s probably been a good ten years since I’d seen Dead Man’s Chest, and I only watched At World’s End once when it first came out and almost didn’t make it through, I was so confused. Luckily, I find that the trilogy makes a lot more sense (and is a lot more fun) when you watch it all close together. And I even came away with a few things I’d like to do—and not do!—in my own pirate fantasy.

Gothic is good. I like my drama balanced out with comedy—Harry Potter does this wonderfully, for instance—but honestly the Pirates films try too hard to be funny for me. I liked them better when they let themselves get dark and broody, like when the Black Pearl first shows up to raid the harbor in the first film, or when a conflicted Elizabeth shackles Jack to the Black Pearl and dooms him to a grisly death.

Characters should recur and develop over time. I noticed this especially with Captain Norrington, who I had remembered as a primary baddie in the first film, but I’d forgotten his continuing role in the second and third films. He briefly serves under Jack as a pirate in the second film but then defects to serve the East India Trading Company. His relationship with Elizabeth is revisited in each film and evolves over time. Honestly, this is a lot of why I didn’t like the fourth and fifth films, because they were mostly about characters I didn’t know, and I missed the characters I already cared about. So I felt cheated by the fifth film when Will is featured in the very beginning—but then he and Elizabeth don’t appear again until the very end.

Emotional resonance matters more than logical plotting. I remember talking a lot of trash about the second and third pirates films when they first came out because their plots don’t make sense. And, no, they don’t make any sense. But even so I was emotionally invested when Tia Dalma and Davy Jones are trying to make sense of their past love, or when they hope it “takes” that Will is the one to kill Davy Jones. Of course, I like movies with coherent plots and emotional resonance, but I think there is a hierarchy.

A striking image sticks with you. The fifth film is a train wreck, in my opinion, but there were a couple of beautiful images that have stuck with me, like the Island of Stars at the end, or the scene where the Black Pearl is sailing along the edge of a deep chasm in the ocean. They may not be enough to “save” the movie, but even that one good moment from a film can make a lasting impression on me.

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