In 2003 Disney struck gold with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. A feature length Disney film based off of a theme park ride!? Nonsense! It was, however, quite worthwhile. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow became a household name, Geoffrey Rush’s villainous and yet charming Captain Barbossa joined the ranks of legendary Disney antagonist such as Cruella DeVille and Malifcent. Orlando Bloom (in part because of Lord of the Rings) finally replaced Leonardo DiCaprio on the walls of teenage girls’ bedrooms and pirates became awesome again. The success of the franchise lead to the formation of a decent trilogy of films and a fourth one down the road. The entire premise of this new series seemed to be “What if all those hokey pirate legends weren’t pure BS, but instead represented a real supernatural element to the world?” It was intriguing, fresh, and, above all, fun. Does the latest entry in the Pirates franchise deliver? Yes and no.
While the Pirates franchise is known for ridiculous action sequences that stretch the credulity, Dead Men Tell No Tales goes above and beyond in its sequences. The stunts and special effects on display in this film are top-notch popcorn flick material. While there’s nothing quite as iconic as the three-way water wheel duel in Dead Man’s Chest, most of the action beats are breathless skirmishes with humor dappled in, as Disney is wont to do. The Silent Mary, I must admit, is a treat but after the Kraken it just feels a tad rehashy. If that’s what you loved about the Pirates franchise, then you’re bound to like this one.
If, however, you enjoyed the colorful cast and their characters, then this will likely feel like one of the weaker entries in the franchise. Orlando Bloom returns as Captain Will Turner of The Flying Dutchman. But his role, and the role of Elizabeth Turner (Keira Knightley) are little more than cameos and a cheap motivation for a new character. Geoffrey Rush returns as the quintessential pirate captain, Hector Barbossa, and while he is always enjoyable it’s clear that they had little left to do with the character. Johnny Depp is in his niche as Captain Jack Sparrow but the performance feels like more of an echo of what made Jack charming in the first place. I daresay that Captain Jack’s role is quite downgraded in this film and they have made room for three new characters to round off our top cast. Javier Bardem turns out a great performance for an admittedly shallow villain in the form of Captain Salazar. Unfortunately it feels like the same beats as his role in Skyfall but adapted to this universe. Brenton Thwaites comes in as Henry Turner and he pulls off a convincing imitation of Orlando which makes it believable that Henry is indeed Will Turner’s son. The problem is that Will Turner had the same motivations in regards to Bootstrap Bill Turner as Henry does with his father. The only new character that feels genuinely fresh is Kayla Scodelario as Carina Smyth, a resourceful and scientific woman way ahead of her time. It’s a shame that the writers didn’t feel this was an interesting enough basis for the character and felt the need to use her to validate the prescence of another character.
The plot is fairly straightforward for a Pirates film (which normally works in at least one betrayal and a triple-Crossing). Each character is motivated to find and claim the Trident of Poseidon, a MacGuffin that conviently holds power over every curse of the sea. Henry wants it to save his cursed father, Carina wants it because her father left her the way to discover it, and Jack wants it because it will stop Captain Salazar from taking his revenge.
Sounds familiar? Right? That’s really the problem I have with the film. It’s just a franchise that had a great run and can still produce good action sequences, great laughs, and awesome mythology. It is, however, a little out of ideas at this point and it painfully shows. I went into this review thinking I liked the film better than I ultimately did. Amazing what a little reflection can do. Does it recapture lightning in a bottle? No. Does it have some great set pieces and actions sequences we’ve come to expect from a Pirates film? Absolutely.
I can happily render Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales a sane movie. Unhappily, I must warn that it barely breaks the threshold and you’ll probably only get real enjoyment out of it as a fan of the franchise.