Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)

Anyone who grew up at the end of the 1980s will more than likely remember the cultural phenomenon sparked by an insanely successful cartoon starring a quartet of anthropomorphic tortoises known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You couldn't go anywhere in the late-'80s without seeing something related to the Ninja Turtles, because they were absolutely everywhere. And as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the Turtles were translated from their animated form into a pair of successful live-action movies released by New Line Cinema.

But as the '90s rolled on, the popularity of the Ninja Turtles began to fade, as all big trends eventually do. However, New Line must not have gotten that memo, because in the waning days of Turtlemania, they released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. The movie performed modestly at the box office and did double its budget, but it was nowhere near the quality of the previous two films in the series. The Ninja Turtles were slowly disappearing from the public consciousness, and this movie's weakness was quite possibly a catalyst for it. Let's see where it went wrong, shall we?

In an abandoned subway station beneath the streets of New York City, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles train under the watchful eye of their master Splinter (the voice of James Murray). Just as their latest training session ends, April O'Neil (Paige Turco) arrives with bags full of goodies she picked up at a local flea market. She gives Leonardo (the voice of Brian Tochi) a book about historical samurai swords; Michelangelo (the voice of Robbie Rist) receives an ugly lampshade that, if this were A Christmas Story, would probably be considered a major award; Donatello (the voice of Corey Feldman) is given an antique radio, and Raphael (the voice of Tim Kelleher) gets a fedora. Her gift for Splinter is an ancient Japanese scepter. But before April can give it to him, a brilliant flash of light from the scepter causes April to vanish and be replaced by a Japanese man.

We learn that this stranger's name is Kenshin (Henry Hayashi), and that he's from feudal Japan circa 1603. (Yes, I know the poster at the top of the review says 1593. But the movie itself says 1603, so I'm assuming the guy in New Line's marketing department made a typo that nobody caught.) In his own time, Kenshin is facing punishment for disgracing his estranged father — and the local daimyo — Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono). Norinaga has been engaged in a war against those who resist him, a war that Kenshin disapproves of. However, Norinaga is facing pressure from a shady British tradesman named Walker (Stuart Wilson), who seems to instigate Norinaga and push him to accept a shipment of guns and cannons.

Back in the twentieth century, the Turtles quickly deduce that the scepter is actually something of a time machine, and due to the oh-so-wonderful laws of physics, April has replaced Kenshin in his time. And being the science whiz he is, Donatello also figures that if they're going to bring April back to the future, they've got about sixty hours before the window of opportunity closes for good and they're all stranded in the past. So they've got to get to work.

With Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) hanging around entertain Kenshin and their four replacements, the Turtles hitch a ride to the seventeenth century. They arrive to find themselves on horseback, with Michelangelo not really getting the hang of it and ending up unconscious in the middle of the woods before a group of the anti-Norinaga rebels kidnap him and steal the scepter.

As night falls, the other three are forced to search for April without Michelangelo. Disguised as honor guards, they sneak their way into Lord Norinaga's castle and follow Walker's sidekick Niles (John Aylward) to the dungeon. There they discover April, who Norinaga blamed for Kenshin's mysterious disappearance and had imprisoned for witchcraft. The Turtles stage a jailbreak and free both April and a prisoner named Whit (Elias Koteas in a dual role), then head into the forest.

But they aren't able to bask in the forest's tranquility for long, as they're ambushed by more rebels that mistakenly believe the Turtles are members of Norinaga's honor guard. The rebel leader, Mitsu (Vivian Wu), unmasks Donatello and is taken aback because he is like "the other one."

Realizing that they have Michelangelo, the three Turtles happily agree to return to their village. But once they arrive, they discover Walker and his henchmen torching the village in search of the scepter. The reunited Turtles fight them off and rescue a young boy named Yoshi (Travis A. Moon) from inside a burning building, which convinces the grateful villagers to let them stay. But things aren't exactly worth celebrating, as they also learn that the scepter has gone missing. The Turtles must find a way to return home before it's too late, as well as find a way out of the war they have found themselves in the middle of.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is something of an enigma. The movie certainly isn't for fans of the comics, and I'm not sure it's for fans of the cartoon either. I'm not really sure who the movie's target demographic is. I was a devoted Ninja Turtle fan on the precipice of my eleventh birthday when Turtles III was released, and I still didn't believe the movie was anywhere near as good or as entertaining as the previous two movies or the cartoon. It seems most moviegoers knew it too, since although it doubled its budget, the movie only pulled in 54 percent of what Turtles II made at the domestic box office, and only 31 percent of what the original film made domestically.

The movie's disappointing success is probably because Turtles III seems like one final effort to make a few bucks off a phenomenon that was on its last legs. The popularity of the Turtles was beginning to wane and at the time of the third movie's release, the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers were about five months away from stealing away the last of their limelight. I mean, Turtles III was so disappointing that I'd say it was pretty much the death knell for Turtlemania as the children of the '80s knew it.

Not everything about the movie is bad, I'll give it that much. The set designers and wardrobe department did a great job, the action is decent, a handful of the jokes are actually funny, and the casting department makes up for some of Turtles II's flaws by bringing back Corey Feldman and Elias Koteas and letting the Turtles use their weapons for a change. But everything else about it... meh.

The screenplay written by Stuart Gillard is one of the movie's bigger faults, I'd say. The idea of taking the Ninja Turtles out of their element isn't a bad idea, but it isn't accomplished well. There's not a whole lot that actually resembles the spirit or charm of the first two movies. The Turtles are the type of characters where everything is done with an irreverent smirk, but aside from a few corny pop culture references, everything not set in modern-day New York City is depicted as being almost as serious as a heart attack. I mean, I don't think anybody was expecting to see the Turtles dropped into a turf war involving the leader of a feudal society and a gun-peddling sleazebag.

Most of Gillard's jokes don't exactly work either. There are a few bits that I liked, such as the scenes with Casey teaching Norinaga's honor guard about television, hockey, and nightclubs, but a lot of the humor is goofy to the point of cheesiness. I mean, working in a lame Wayne's World reference? Yeah, Wayne's World was a big hit a year before Turtles III came out, but I really don't think the crowd that watches Saturday Night Live or saw Wayne's World is the same crowd that would be seeing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I have this notion that Gillard was sitting in his office writing the script, thinking to himself, "Let's have the Turtles say 'schwing' when they find April showing a little leg. That'll be hilarious!" Well, guess what? The only amusement it draws is the giggling that is usually followed by the phrase, "That's so lame." And to tell the truth, a hefty majority of the jokes in the movie are like that.

You know, the second movie moved the franchise closer to the same silly nature of the cartoon. They may have ditched Casey Jones, but the Vanilla Ice cameo and the Bebop and Rocksteady wannabes really said that if the first movie was for fans of the comics, Turtles II was for fans of the animated series. Why Gillard couldn't have written a movie that continued that, I have no idea. A more comedic, fantasy-oriented slant would have at least fit some franchise expectations, but the plot seems like the decision was made to drop the Turtles into The Last Samurai.

I certainly don't fault Gillard for at least trying to do something different with the Turtles, but I'd have much rather seen the Turtles fight Baxter Stockman or Krang. I mean, who would you rather see as a villain sparring with four anthropomorphic turtles: a mutant half-man/half-housefly and a talking brain from Dimension X that drives around in a tank that looks like the Death Star, or a 17th-century Japanese warlord and the guy that leads the British version of the National Rifle Association? No, I don't know if they could have done a convincing Krang or Technodrome on a 20 million dollar budget, but David Cronenberg did The Fly for 15 million dollars, so I'm sure they could have had Baxter Stockman as a villain. But nope, we instead get this lame time travel story. I guess you could say I'm not exactly a fan of the plot.

I will give credit to Gillard for his decent work as a director, though. His work isn't groundbreaking, nothing that would have earned him any award nominations. But Gillard and cinematographer David Gurfinkel handle things well enough, with the action sequences being where they do their best work. It doesn't save the movie from being thoroughly mediocre at best, but hey, at least Gillard makes the movie look decent.

At least it helps that the movie has the benefit of another strong music score composed by John Du Prez. If there's one constant in the live-action Turtles trilogy, it's been Du Prez and his fantastic music. His music for Turtles III naturally has a very East Asian feel at times, while maintaining a style similar to his music for the first two films at other times.

The cast is also acceptable, but there aren't really too many standout players. Brian Tochi, Corey Feldman, Robbie Rist, and Tim Kellehner all do a decent job voicing the Turtles, but James Murray isn't nearly half as good as Kevin Clash's work as Splinter from the previous movies. Paige Turco reprises her role from Turtles II, but it appears that she's returning to a different character, one that seems to have been changed from the mother figure she was previously to almost being one of the boys. Turco does look like she's having a lot of fun, playing the role well despite the lame writing. Stuart Wilson, Sab Shimono, and Vivian Wu are all acceptable if not almost forgettable, and Harry Hayashi and Travis A. Moon are complete non-factors.

The true standout actor in the movie is Elias Koteas. Koteas is given next to nothing to do with the "Whit" character, but his scenes with the honor guard — played by Mak Takano, Steven Getson Akahoshi, Kent Kim, and Ken Kensei — are the best parts of the whole thing. Why they didn't bring him back for Turtles II, I have no idea, because both Koteas and the character are great. You know, if it were up to me, I'd have completely forgone the idea of doing a third Turtles movie and done a Casey Jones spin-off instead. That would have been a lot more fun than this mediocre waste of time.

But if I had to choose what I thought was the absolute worst part of the movie, it would be the ungodly atrocious effects designed by All Effects Company. The producers must not have been able to convince Jim Henson's Creature Shop to come back, which is a shame. The bodies of the four turtles wouldn't be completely horrible if it weren't for the unrealistic rubbery skin and weird spots that weren't there in the first two movies, but the faces look like someone decided to create four oversized reptilian Furbys and put them in a movie. I mean, there's even some instances where the Turtles speak, and their mouths don't move at all. That could more than likely be blamed on the sound editors, but it's still lame. And how about that hideous animatronic Splinter? It looks more like something you'd see at Chuck E. Cheese's instead of something that looks, you know, believable.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is a very good example of how an attempt to keep a dying franchise afloat can go horribly wrong. I mean, I'm sure that even the most devoted Ninja Turtles fan has a hard time watching this tragic misfire. I don't even know if I can wrap this thing up properly, because I'm so astounded that this movie is what it is. There are a couple of entertaining things about Turtles III, but not enough to avoid being outweighed by the bad. I'm going to give it two stars, and a recommendation only to those people who absolutely have to see anything and everything related to the Ninja Turtles. And after watching this again, I can't say I'm surprised that it took Hollywood fourteen years to release another Ninja Turtles movie.

Final Rating: **

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)

Anyone who considers themselves a child of the '80s is sure to remember a quartet of anthropomorphic tortoises known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Though the Ninja Turtles had the humblest of beginnings, originating as a comic book independently published by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984, the fearsome foursome would become a mainstream juggernaut later in the decade when they joined CBS's block of Saturday morning cartoons in 1987. After that, the Turtles were everywhere. Action figures, clothes, breakfast cereal, Hostess fruit pies, and even toothpaste all bore the logo of, as their theme song called them, the "heroes in a half shell."

And eventually, they even got their own movie. Hitting theaters in the spring of 1990, the live-action Ninja Turtles movie was a smashing success, and prompted distributor New Line Cinema to strike while the iron was hot and release a sequel just one year later. And while it's not exactly as good as the first movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze still makes an excellent attempt to maintain all the fun of the original.

The Ninja Turtles — Leonardo (the voice of Brian Tochi), Michelangelo (the voice of Robbie Rist), Donatello (the voice of Adam Carl), and Raphael (the voice of Laurie Faso) — and their master Splinter (the voice of Kevin Clash) are in search of a new home, staying at the apartment of their one human friend, April O'Neil (Paige Turco), in the interim. I'm not really sure if it's a good idea for April to let them crash at her place, since the last time that happened, it led to a giant war that resulted in the whole building going up in flames. Was I the only one who learned anything from the first movie?

In any respect, the Turtles are still on cloud nine after their incredible defeat of the Foot Clan. Unfortunately, their battle is not quite over. Shredder (François Chau, with David McCharen's voice) has somehow survived his apparent death at the end of the first movie, and swears revenge as he reorganizes the Foot Clan and formulates a new plan of attack.

He kidnaps scientist Jordan Perry (David Warner) and forces him to use the last known canister of the radioactive ooze that created the Ninja Turtles to form two new beasts: a giant snapping turtle and wolf named Tokka and Rahzar (both voiced by Frank Welker). The Turtles are quickly forced into action, teaming with Perry and a pizza delivery boy named Keno (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) as they search for a way to save New York City from the rampaging monsters that Shredder has unleashed.

Well, nobody ever accused the movie of being Shakespeare. One could probably even argue that if the original movie drew the majority of its inspiration from Eastman and Laird's comics, then the sequel was greatly inspired by the cartoon. The movie truly does feel like a live-action, feature-length episode of the cartoon. Sure, there's no Krang, and Bebop and Rocksteady have been replaced with Tokka and Rahzar, but the movie definitely has the same childlike demeanor as the cartoon. I mean, a Vanilla Ice cameo would never have worked in the first movie. But here, while it's still silly beyond words, it works on some surreal level.

The screenplay penned by Todd W. Langen feels like something that was just slapped together in order to get out there for the crew to film. The movie was written, produced, edited, and released exactly twelve months after its predecessor, presumably to capitalize on the success of the first movie before kids moved on to the next fad. This sort of speed can work for some movie franchises, like the Saw series, but Langen's script seems rushed and is full of things that just don't make a whole lot of sense. Shredder going out like a punk in a totally anticlimactic ending? Weak Bebop and Rocksteady wannabes instead of the real thing? The way-too-awesome Casey Jones being replaced by the way-too-lame Keno? Come on now.

Langen's script also panders way too hard to kids, as the Turtles rely far too much on quirky catchphrases instead of more witty humor, as well as a lack of any real violence. The fight scenes have been seriously toned down, almost becoming cartoony in nature. The Turtles barely even use their trademark weapons at all, with only Donatello being the only one to really get any sort of use out of his weapon.

However, the direction by Michael Pressman isn't that bad. Unfortunately, it's also incredibly generic. Considering that the movie's target demographic doesn't really care about epic cinematography or any of the other intricacies of filmmaking, I guess Pressman didn't really feel pressured to try anything more than the bare minimum in order to get the job done.

I know I shouldn't really be expecting a whole lot, since this is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II we're talking about. But even if Pressman was just doing things simply and get it over with so they get the movie out as quick as possible, you'd think Pressman would at least try a little harder.

It does help, though, that the movie once again boasts a fine music score composed by John Du Prez. I thought highly of his music for the first movie, and his music for Turtles II is no different. It's exciting and entertaining, doing what every good soundtrack should do by enhancing the visuals.

But I will say that I liked the cast a lot. The voice actors behind the Turtles and Splinter all do a great job, though I am bummed that Corey Feldman couldn't return as Donatello. David McCharen was once again fantastic as the voice of Shredder, and although he doesn't have too much dialogue, Frank Welker is entertaining as Tokka and Rahzar.

Among the on-screen actors, Paige Turco replaces Judith Hoag here and I don't have any problems with the change. The role of April is more motherly here than in the previous movie, and Turco plays it with a warm, affable demeanor that makes both her and the character more endearing. David Warner is acceptable, although I don't believe this is a movie that he keeps on his résumé, and Ernie Reyes is fun, but he and his character are absolutely no substitute for Elias Koteas's Casey Jones.

And as in the previous movie, Jim Henson's Creature Shop has designed four fantastic Turtle costumes. The costumes are fantastic, looking even better than the Creature Shop's costumes from a year earlier. The lip-synching is well-done, and the costumes appear lifelike and believable. I wish I could say the same for Tokka and Rahzar's costumes, though. They look good, very good, but there's no life behind their eyes. Their eyes don't move, they don't blink, their mouths don't move much when they talk. I got the impression that the Creature Shop didn't get to finish the animatronics in Tokka and Rahzar's faces before the movie went into production, which pretty much renders them expensive Halloween costumes. But other than that, the Creature Shop did a great job.

Most sequels out there just don't cut the mustard when held up against the movie that came before it. And unfortunately, Turtles II isn't as good as the first one. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie. I actually like it a lot, even the much-maligned Vanilla Ice cameo. I only really have two problems with the movie: the general feeling of a rushed production, and the all-too-short battle with Shredder at the end of the movie. In the first movie, it took the Turtles several minutes and a garbage truck to defeat Shredder. But in Turtles II, an eight-foot-tall mutated Super-Shredder is given ninety seconds of screen time, and he goes out like a complete wuss without anything even resembling a fight. The Turtles fighting Super-Shredder would have made for an amazing finale if it had been done right, but I guess there's not a lot that can be done to change that nearly two decades after the fact.

But when you get right down to it, the truth of the matter is this: this is a movie that is hard to take seriously. And that whole subtitle "The Secret of the Ooze" is just plain silly, especially since there's no secret at all. It's hard to be surprised when learning that the turtles were created by radioactive slime when that was mentioned in the first movie too. But to wrap this thing up, this movie is a simple one, seeming more like an 88-minute epilogue than a true sequel. In spite of its inadequacies, I enjoyed the movie, so I'll give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze three stars. That's more than I can say for the third Ninja Turtles movie.

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Of all the crazy ideas people have had for movies, one of the oddest was the Walt Disney Company's idea to do movies based on Disneyland attractions. It was an idea that was met with mixed results. The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion failed to set the world on fire, but despite those failures, Disney did have a wee bit of success in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Of course, by "wee bit of success," I mean that they had a big fat hit on their hands.

With a worldwide box office intake of 654 million dollars and five Academy Award nominations to the movie's credit, it was only a matter of time before Disney ventured out with a sequel. And a sequel is just what Disney gave us. Titled Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the sequel was just as entertaining as its predecessor while being even more successful, joining Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King on the extremely short list of movies that made over one billion dollars worldwide. And it made all that money for good reason.

The age of piracy is coming to an end, and hastening this is the East India Trading Company. Guiding the Company into the Caribbean is domineering agent Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who arrests Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) mere moments before their wedding. They and the missing ex-commodore James Norrington (Jack Davenport) stand in the shadow of the hangman's noose for their parts in the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), but Beckett offers them all a pardon if Will agrees to find and retrieve Jack's mysterious compass. Though a bit apprehensive, Will accepts the proposition, leaving the love of his life in a jail cell while he hunts for the roguish pirate.

His search leads him to the island of Pelegosto, where the Black Pearl has run aground and the crew is hiding out. Y'see, Jack had been paid a visit by his former crewmate — and Will's father — "Bootstrap Bill" Turner (Stellan Skarsgård). Now an indentured servant aboard the notorious ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman, Bootstrap Bill delivered a message to Jack, stating that his debt to the sadistic half-man/half-squid Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) was being called in. See, Jones had raised the Black Pearl from the ocean's floor for Jack thirteen years prior. And now that Jack's part of the bargain was being asked for, he must serve a century aboard the Flying Dutchman or face the wrath of Jones's personal sea monster, a mythological beast known as the Kraken. And since Jack isn't exactly ready to pay his debt, he and the Black Pearl's crew headed for Pelegosto, where Jack is apparently the chief of the native tribe. But the fun doesn't last for long, because Jack, Will, and the Black Pearl's crew end up having to run for their lives from the cannibalistic natives.

Barely making it back to the ship, they head out upon the open sea. Will tells Jack that Elizabeth are bound to hang unless he returns to Port Royal with the compass, but Jack makes a bargain: he'll hand over the compass, but only if Will helps him locate a key that leads to a great reward for whoever finds what it unlocks. They begin their quest for the key by seeking assistance from Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), a voodoo priestess whose calls an isolated swamp her home. It is here we learn why Jack's compass is so special, as it points its possessor in the direction of whomever or whatever they desire most. But since the compass doesn't want to point Jack in the key's direction, Tia Dalma states that Jack either doesn't really know what he wants, or is hesitant to claim it if he does.

The key, she goes on to explain, opens the "Dead Man's Chest." Inside this chest is Davy Jones's still-beating heart, which he removed when the burden of lost love grew too heavy to bear. Whoever possesses the heart will also possess control over the seven seas. The Black Pearl soon heads back out to sea, but it isn't long before its crew encounters the Flying Dutchman. Jack, conniving weasel that he is, tries to offer up Will in his stead, but Jones doesn't quite go for the deal. He instead tells Jack that he'll give him his freedom, but to get it, he has to bring Jones one hundred souls within three days. And to get the ball rolling, Jones keeps Will aboard the Flying Dutchman, leaving Jack with ninety-nine souls to go.

Elizabeth is freed from her jail cell by her father (Jonathan Pryce) back in Port Royal, but before they can get her out of Dodge, Beckett ends up catching them. Elizabeth isn't taking any of his crap, so she threatens him at gunpoint and makes him hand over the Letter of Marque that Beckett had intended to give Jack. She plans on giving it to Will, so figuring she'd find him with Jack, she stows away on the nearest merchant vessel heading for Tortuga.

That turned out to be the right place to look, as Jack and his first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) are at a pub recruiting as many sailors as they can get. And who is among the recruits? None other than James Norrington, who looks like things have really gone downhill for him. Norrington blames Jack for the rather unpleasant path his life has taken, so he pulls a gun and tries shooting him. All that does is spark a wild brawl that ends with Elizabeth knocking Norrington unconscious.

Knowing of Elizabeth's determination to be with Will again, Jack reveals the compass's secret to her at the dock that evening. He hands the compass over to her, convincing her that acquiring the Dead Man's Chest will be the easiest way to reunite her with her groom-to-be. Elizabeth warily accepts the compass, pointing the Black Pearl in the direction of the chest. But as the voyage progresses, she begins to call her feelings for Will into doubt when she sees the compass pointing at Jack when she gives it a second glance.

The Black Pearl eventually arrives at a desert island named Isla Cruces, where the compass leads Jack, Elizabeth, and Norrington to the Dead Man's Chest. But in a wild coincidence, they cross paths with none other than Will. Having managed to steal the chest's key from Jones and escape from the Flying Dutchman with a little help from Bootstrap Bill, Will likewise seeks the chest with the intention of using it to free his woebegone father from eternal servitude aboard Jones's ship. Jack, Norrington, and Will end up having a three-way duel for the chest, but things get a wee bit more complicated when the Flying Dutchman arrives with the Kraken in tow, all of it coming to a head in a giant battle for possession of the Dead Man's Chest.

While it's common for mega-huge blockbusters to get sequels, it's uncommon for them to be as good as their predecessors. Sure, they might make more money, but when it comes to quality, most of them don't hold a candle to the original film. However, Dead Man's Chest is a rare exception to that stigma. It might not be an exact equal to The Curse of the Black Pearl, but it's very, very close. Though to be truthful, Dead Man's Chest is almost the complete opposite of the first movie. The first movie is a pirate adventure with just a bit of fantasy, while the sequel a full-blown fantasy film with a bit of pirate adventure. But just like its predecessor, Dead Man's Chest is brilliantly directed, brilliantly written, and brilliantly acted. It, like The Curse of the Black Pearl, may be a bit overlong (clocking in at exactly two and a half hours), but it never wears out its welcome, never ceasing to be entertaining.

Just as he did in the previous movie, Gore Verbinski does an excellent job in the director's chair. Once again teaming with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Verbinski crafts a film that is executed with a wonderful visual flair. His use of the visual effects crafted by Industrial Light & Magic is nothing short of astounding, as all of the CGI work looks realistic. It's none of that CGI that looks good, but you can still tell it's computer generated; it appears truly lifelike. The makeup effects on Bill Nighy and the actors playing the Flying Dutchman's crew would take forever to apply if done in full by practical effects teams, but the work done by ILM's digital animators looks so authentic, it's almost mind-boggling. Verbinski puts ILM's work to good use, as well as the grand score composed by Hans Zimmer. The music does exactly what all good movie music does: enhance the visuals while still being engaging in its own right. The music never becomes overbearing and invasive like it does in other blockbuster epics, but instead strengthens the movie by assisting in the storytelling process.

The screenplay penned by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is also well done, in spite of a flaw or two. My biggest complaint about the script is that it takes a while for the plot to really get going. And by the time things get moving, we're an hour into the movie and everything seems more complicated than it really is. However, Elliott and Rossio succeed in just about everything else. They wisely give the lion's share to Jack Sparrow, the franchise's most entertaining character, but they never let the other characters get stuck in Jack's shadow.

Each of the major players make some form of contribution to the story, though I got the impression that Elliott and Rossio couldn't really think of a whole lot to do with Will. He spends most of the movie brooding, complaining about things, and taking himself way too seriously, but he doesn't really accomplish a whole lot other than stealing the key to the Dead Man's Chest and repeatedly making vows to get his father off the Flying Dutchman. I know Will isn't as popular as Jack, but come on, can't somebody throw him a bone? Though perhaps he's supposed to be that way, as sort of a contrast to Jack's dashing, smooth-talking personality. That's certainly a possibility.

Last but not least is the cast. In my review of The Curse of the Black Pearl, I stated that I wasn't exactly impressed with the performances of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. That's changed with Dead Man's Chest, as both of there performances are quite good. I've already voiced my opinions in regards to Bloom's character, but he does the best with what he's given, and I can't fault him for that. Meanwhile, Knightley does a wonderful job, portraying Elizabeth as a strong-willed young woman who isn't hesitant to use her feminine wiles to try to influence things in her favor. And truth be told, I can't imagine anyone else in the role.

The other female member of the cast, Naomie Harris, is just as fun to watch. Although she only appears in two scenes, Harris plays the role with an infectious energy that really pulls the viewer in. Bill Nighy also does a great job, despite the CGI essentially whittling him down to just his eyes and voice. He may not have the same charm as Geoffrey Rush, but Nighy still makes for an intimidating villain that commands the screen. Kevin McNally, Stellan Skarsgård, Jack Davenport, and Tom Hollander are all fine despite their limited supporting roles, and in their extremely minor yet humorous roles, Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook are hilarious as halfwit pirate wannabes Pintel and Rageti, the franchise's answer to R2-D2 and C-3PO.

But as was the case with the previous movie, Johnny Depp is the star of the show. Depp plays Jack with a humorous irreverence that makes the character loveable even when he's lying and cheating to further his own agendas and save his own neck from the chopping block. He obviously loves playing the character, as his enthusiasm shows. Every word he says, every move he makes is done with a smile. A lesser actor wouldn't have done what Depp does with the role, and I hope that he'll agree to do every Pirates of the Caribbean movie that Disney asks him to do.

Although quite a bit of it builds towards the third movie in the franchise, including one of the best cliffhangers that I personally have seen, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is not only a great sequel, but a great movie in general. It's not a perfect film — then again, how many movies are? — but it's worth seeing by fans of pirate adventures and of high-quality entertainment. The direction is excellent, the cast is great, and the special effects are amazing. And I'll repeat what I said earlier: Dead Man's Chest might not be just as good as The Curse of the Black Pearl, it's very, very close. My final judgement is four stars, and a seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****