It’s an interesting world we live in today where it seems like anything can be turned into a movie. In the old days of cinema, you merely had to look to literature or the latest headlines for inspiration when crafting a property for the big screen. Television shows making the crossover was the next phase. Now, all media of every kind is fodder for big screen adaptations. We’ve seen movies based off of commercials (1996’s Space Jam), toy products (2014’s The Lego Movie), and later this year, a movie based on the way we text (The Emoji Movie). But even more shocking than the sources of inspiration is the sometimes unexpected result of those movies ending up actually being good. The Lego Movie is a perfect example of a baffling concept of a movie actually paying off, thanks to a smart script and beautifully executed animation. But, there has been perhaps no bigger unexpected hit made from the unlikeliest of inspirations than Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean. Seriously, when you first heard that Disney was taking one of their theme park attractions and turning it into a full length feature, you would’ve thought they had gone crazy. And maybe they were a little. But, it was a crazy idea that somehow managed to manifest itself into a box office and critical hit. It wasn’t Disney’s first attempt at creating a film themed around one of their theme park rides (The Country Bears, 2002), nor their last (The Haunted Mansion, 2003), but it would be the only one that actually succeeded. This is largely due to the fact that it was far more earnest in it’s execution and was carried on the shoulders of a career-defining performance from Johnny Depp, who created his most popular character here; the unforgettable Captain Jack Sparrow.
When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) first launched into theaters, it blew all our expectations away. It was adventurous, funny, visually stunning, and just all around fun. It also turned Johnny Depp, who up until that time was seen as more as an indie film actor, into a bankable star. It gave co-star Orlando Bloom a much needed post-Lord of the Rings boost, and helped to introduce Keira Knightley to the world. It also featured a deliciously evil performance from Geoffrey Rush, who created an equally iconic character in Captain Barbosa. Naturally, with the success the film achieved, sequels were destined to follow. And Disney took the ambitious step of shooting two Pirates films back to back. The over half a billion dollar project resulted in Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007), and both performed even better at the box office. But, despite being praised for some of their aspects, like the villainous Davy Jones(played by Bill Nighy) and the amazing CGI technology that brought him to life, the sequels were received critically with a mixed reaction. Some loved the movies, while others felt they were a let down. Despite what everyone thought, it was clear that the latter Pirates movies suffered from the problem of a bloated production. People felt that the films lacked the tightly paced thrills of the first movie and that they had become way too long; At World’s End clocked in at nearly three hours alone. It was enough criticism to drive Disney to reassess the series in the next installment, which resulted in On Stranger Tides (2011), which was a disastrous disappointment. It was a dismally boring sequel that retained none of the charm of the other movies, and just felt like a pale shadow of it’s former self. From this, Disney took a long break from the series, but now we have another return to the seas with Captain Jack and crew in Dead Men Tell No Tales. The question now is if the extended wait helped to calm the seas and right the ship for this series, or did it leave it shipwrecked and forsaken.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales reintroduces us to Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who we last saw in At World’s End, cursed to command the doomed ship The Flying Dutchman for all eternity. We see Will confront his son Henry, who vows to free his father of the curse and he tells him that he has searched all legends of the sea to find that answer. Many years later, a grown up Henry (Brenton Thwaites) believes that if he can find an ancient artifact known as Neptune’s Trident, it might be able to end the curse forever. His search leads him into an area called the Devil’s Triangle, where he’s brought face to face with a Ghost Ship that is commanded by the haunted presence of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Salazar tells Henry to deliver a message to Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), telling him that he means to take his revenge once he is out in open waters again, acting on the grievance of losing his life thanks to the trickery of Jack who had trapped him in the triangle many years ago. Henry finds Jack on the island of St. Martin, along with what’s left of his crew, including the ever loyal Gibbs (Kevin McNally). Also in St. Martin, they run across a fugitive named Carina (Kaya Scodelario), who is accused of being a witch purely because of her ability to read the stars. They soon learn that she may have the knowledge necessary to find the location of the Trident, and together they set sail out into open seas. But, in pursuit is a British warship under the command of the tenacious Captain Scarfield (David Wenham) as well as Salazar, who has allied himself with an old adversary of Captain Jack; the fearsome Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush). It’s a mad rush to reach the Trident in time, because whoever possesses the trident commands the sea itself, and with it, can break any curse it has put on anyone.
Now that the series is up to 5 films total, one has to wonder if there is any new territory left to uncover with this world and these characters. With Dead Men Tell No Tales, Disney was far more interested in cutting the fat out of the series and returning it to it’s more modest roots. They brought on Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, who had previously made the acclaimed Kon-Tiki (2012). Their more adventure oriented tastes seemed like a good fit for the series and would be a welcome change from the bloat of Gore Verbinski’s back to back sequels and Rob Marshall’s limited vision. But, was it enough to make us care again. Well, here’s the thing; is it really a series that needs to be saved. My feeling is that the series had played itself out in the original trilogy. Despite all of it’s problems, At World’s End was an adequate capper to the story-line, and had a great sense of finality to it. Everything since has felt like nothing more than a shameless cash grab. Dead Men Tell No Tales falls into this category unfortunately, but at the same time, it is not the worst we’ve seen from this series either. On Stranger Tides had no redeeming value whatsoever, whereas this has the benefit of some moments that do merit praise. For the most part, it still feels like it’s not needed at all, but it does entertain periodically. The tighter plot helps out with the pacing (at a brisk 126 minutes, this is the shortest film in the series, by a long shot). If only the plot didn’t preoccupy itself with a lot of unnecessary world building. For a series that is based off of a theme park attraction, they sure have crafted a complex mythology around it. And even over five films spanning 14 years, I still don’t think the filmmakers have fully grasped all of it. That’s perhaps the biggest flaw of this film is the fact that it doesn’t streamline the plot mechanisms in any way, and that interferes with us trying to find enjoyment in the ride itself. A movie like this doesn’t need to explain anything or have to make sense; it can just be a big, loud adventure and we’ll be happy with that.
Trying to balance the adventure plotting with complex mythological themes along with Jack Sparrow’s often slap-sticky shenanigans creates this often uneven tone to the movie, and it spoils most of the experience overall. By the time the movie does reach the mythical Trident, it has gone through so many shifts and turns that you’re just exhausted trying to piece it together and become numb to it all. I honestly didn’t care what was going on by the end of this movie, which is a shame because there are some plot developments late in the movie that should’ve carried more weight than they should. The movie feels more successful in individual scenes than as a whole. There is an especially great scene early on involving a guillotine that I found very entertaining. It’s a physical comedic bit that would’ve done Buster Keaton proud, and I’m sure that it gave Johnny Depp an excellent moment to dig into character for. That and other scenes like it help to lift this movie up from the disappointment of On Stranger Tides, which had maybe only one good scene in the entire film (the mermaid scene), and even that pales in comparison to some of the moments here. What becomes apparent, however, is that nothing in this movie really justifies it’s existence other than some neat set pieces. Nothing feels like it adds to the lore of Pirates. It’s just more of the same. It’s also clear that the character of Jack Sparrow has run it’s course. Jack really just feels like a tag-along this time around, as he adds nothing more to the plot than a previous connection to the villain. It’s not that Jack Sparrow can no longer be entertaining, it’s just that his adventures have long stopped being interesting.
That being said, the thing that does help keep this movie afloat for most of it’s run-time is Johnny Depp’s performance. He still commands every moment he is on screen, and I managed to never grow old of his shtick either. Truth be told, the character has lost some of the subtlety that we saw in Curse of the Black Pearl, but even in a more clownish version of the role, Depp’s Sparrow is still a welcome sight. Depp just feels more at home as Captain Jack and it’s a role that still brings out the best in him. It’s certainly far better than his awful Mad Hatter seen in the Alice in Wonderland pictures. But, his routine only works at it’s best when it has other strong performance to work off of. That was the failure of On Stranger Tides, because he had to do double lifting after bland performances from Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane gave him nothing to work with. Here, he has Javier Bardem as the villain, who is a marked improvement. Bardem’s Salazar manages to be both menacing and over-the-top ridiculous at the same time. You can tell that Bardem loves chewing the scenery here just as much as Johnny Depp, and it makes for a perfect match. The ghost effect they put upon Bardem is really effective too, and it makes for a striking effect that really sets him apart from other Pirates adversaries. Geoffrey Rush also makes a triumphant return as Barbosa, reaffirming my belief that he’s the best element of all five films and my favorite character in the series. Series newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario don’t fare quite as well. They are improvements over the young couple from On Stranger Tides, but not much better I’m afraid. It’s clear that they are just stand-ins for the original trilogy’s Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and sadly they fall way short of the appeal of those two.
The visuals are also a mixed bag. At some points, the movie does have some visual splendor to it. One scene in particular, involving a run away bank (trust me, it makes sense in the film), has a great epic scale to it, and it did impress me that directors Ronning and Sandberg accomplished it with little to no CGI. But, later on the film does tend to favor style over substance, and it turns into one messy visual effects extravaganza by the end. The showdown at the Trident’s resting place might as well had been a cartoon, because it’s so clearly a green screened environment that looks too artificial to every be believable. One thing that I lament being lost over the years in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is the sense of time and place. Sure, these are special effects extravaganzas, but they are period pieces as well. The first Pirates did an exceptional job of placing you in a different time period, allowing the movie to take it’s time and soak up moments that let us enjoy the beautifully detailed scenery. I remember the blacksmith shop fight scene being a perfect example of that; where it was clear that period detail mattered as part of the story. In Dead Man Tell No Tales, we get very little of that. In fact, Ronning and Sandberg have almost stripped the movie down a little too much, making even the period details feel inauthentic. The period sets look a tad too clean in this movie, like it’s clear that they were just built only days prior, and don’t feel lived in at all; much like a brand new production set would. I prefer a period film to have a real, lived in feel, which previous Pirates films have done so well. Here, the movie reveals itself as very basic and unwilling to fully commit, and it’s the thing that holds it back from feeling like a return to form for the series.
So, sad to say, but this is yet another indicator that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise no longer has any wind in it’s sails. Truth be told, few of us ever thought more than one of these movies, let alone five. Somehow, Disney managed to turn their park attraction into a viable franchise, which in turn has become of their most valued titles in recent memory. Jack Sparrow is now one of Disney’s most popular characters, both in and out of the parks. Johnny Depp still values the character himself, often appearing in costume at charity events and children’s hospitals, or even just to please the everyday fan unexpectedly (like he did in the actual ride at Disneyland earlier this year). But, all good things must come to an end, and I think this franchise has overstayed it’s welcome a little too long. Truth be told, it could have been worse, like On Stranger Tides which still stands as the worst in the series. But Dead Men Tell No Tales does not make the case for continued adventures with Jack and crew. Disney seems to think that there might be (an end credit sequence keeps the door open just a crack), but I’m not holding my breath in anticipation. Honestly, let the series end on this little uptick. It’s not a saving grace, but it didn’t dig the hole any deeper. That’s the best that I can say for it. If you liked all the previous Pirates films before, you’ll probably enjoy this as well. There are a number of serviceable scenes that do harken back to the series’ heyday, and a couple nice surprises as well (including a particularly unexpected cameo from a musical legend), but overall Jack Sparrow’s best days are behind him. Whether or not there is more on the horizon is likely to fall on the wishes of Johnny Depp, and I would suggest to him that it’s better to weigh anchor now before the series really starts to fall into irrelevance. The only options that would be worth exploring now would be to take the world of Pirates and reinvent it through different mediums. Maybe an animated film or series; I mean it’s Disney after all. For now, Dead Men Tell No Tales proves that it’s best for there to be no more tales to tell. Enjoy what we already have, take it easy, and drink up me hearties, yo ho. Savvy.