By Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 05, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: Peter Mountain

Because I was so harsh on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when it steamed into port three years ago while so many others around me were hoisting their mugs of grog for the movie based on a Disney theme-park ride, I was determined to embrace Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest with the open mind of a rum-soaked hearty. ”A mirthless course of script beats and busy action sequences” is what I arggghed back then, mustering only a mild yo-ho-ho for Johnny Depp’s glam-rock vamping as pirate/Village Person Capt. Jack Sparrow. I see now that I was wrong about the original: It’s a thing of balletic grace, theatrical richness of character, and self-effacing economy of action when compared with the shapeless, weightless, endless sequel — a version 2.0 that, in its final minutes, portends a future 3.0 of such necessarily staggering, ostentatious extravagance as to bankrupt all but the most iron-walleted of Hollywood producers.

Yes indeed, Pirates 2.0 is a theme ride, if by ride you mean a hellish contraption into which a ticket holder is strapped, overstimulated but unsatisfied, and unable to disengage until the operator releases the restraining harness. There’s a big moviegoing chasm between joy and Pavlovian response, and this baby plunges headlong into the abyss in a summer when other equally escapist big deals manage to keep their wits about them.

So, first to the barely intelligible plot — not that the plot in Dead Man’s Chest matters a fig anyway, except insofar as young sweethearts Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are once again thwarted from, as they say in classic pirate movies, getting it on. This time what stands between the two photogenic romantic leads is bluster from a new villainous British prig-in-a-wig, some twitty adult who demands that Will do some impossible thing or another to earn his freedom. Or else. (Or else what? Like we’d care? Like Will and Liz are anything other than whirling teacup figurines?)

Meanwhile, Jack (the louche weirdness now ratcheted up by the one-of-a-kind Mr. Depp so that jumpin’ Jack is an exotic Cage aux Folles bird of even fancier lip twitches, wrist curls, and rouged feathers) owes a debt to the underworldly lord of the waterlogged, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). And Jones commands a ship of dead fools disfigured with pulsating, curling, slimy goiters and squid-like protuberances. This army of the deep suggests the very picture of ick by teen standards, conjured through the very fanciest of special effects; the clattering skeletons of the original Pirates look positively minimalist by comparison.

Beneath the tangle of Jones’ facial pasta, it’s possible ever so faintly to make out Nighy’s own familiar, welcome characteristic head tilts, more usefully employed by the delightful British actor in just about anything else he has ever done, but doubtless never more handsomely remunerated. Anyway, as Jack, Will, and Elizabeth work cooperatively, the makers of Dead Man’s Chest hurl obstacles in the trio’s way with the tenacity — and undifferentiated agitation — of shipboard monkeys. Clash after calamity after jokey mishap ensues, with time enough for many of the original secondary players to cash their own paychecks. Remember the BBC Office‘s Mackenzie Crook as that skinny, scurvy seafaring knave with the loose fake eyeball prone to going astray? There’s more eyeball rolling where that came from.

But, see, this is where the cheat between sensation and satisfaction comes in, a substitution only likely to become more commonplace as the Pirates franchise becomes the very model of modern studio brand extension. Without character, where’s the consequence? Without consequence, where’s the joy? Without an artistic stake in eliciting joy (or sadness, or concern, or something other than a glazed giggle at Depp’s finery), there’s nothing to keep producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski, and their screenwriting galleymates from piling on another big false ending, and another, and another, Caribbean without end, until a pummeled audience begs for a toilet break and, for mercy’s sake, a real conclusion.

Discounting adrenaline rush, fright, nausea, and relief as evidence of dramatic effect, there are no consequences in a theme-park ride: You get on, you get jiggled, you get off. Maybe you even ask for another go-round, because it feels so good when the jiggling stops. Difference is, a ride runs a few minutes, while Dead Man’s Chest cranks for what feels like an infernal eternity.