There are few films that hold quite as much cultural relevance than Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise does, which since the release of The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, the four-billion-dollar grossing has franchise forever changed pop culture and The Walt Disney Company itself, spawning four sequels, theme park attractions (not to mention the overlay of the original Pirates of the Caribbean attractions on both coasts), and a legacy that’s sure to last a lifetime. After ending the franchise in 2007 with the abysmal At World’s End, and continuing the series with the drastic On Strangers Tides in 2011, Disney digs deep into their library to re-invigorate the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with Dead Men Tell No Tales, in hopes that for the first time since Curse of the Black Pearl (and in my opinion, Dead Man’s Chest) that there’s still fun and originality to be found in the franchise. The result is a bit of a muddled mess of things that really work and other elements that tragically get washed ashore.
There’s a lot to love about the latest installment of the series, subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales, and in the least, it’s far better than On Stranger’s Tides and allows audiences to forget that shipwreck ever happened. Though quality is not something often associated with the Pirates franchise either way (save for the spectacular original film, The Curse of the Black Pearl) the mythology of the franchise is deep and rich, and thankfully, this is something that Dead Men Tell No Tales approaches with great respect. In fact, the main plot underlying the film itself builds off the mythology of the climax of At World’s End, and there’s no shortage of fan-filled moments and great callbacks to the original three films, expanding on the mythology and folklore that this series has to offer. Immediately out of the gate, the film provides us with some of the series strongest moments, delivering an absolutely spectacular first-act that not only recaptures the fun, hilarious and unpredictable tone of the original film, but sets the series for a brand new uncharted course. Dead Men Tell No Tales begins its journey out smoothly, but sadly gets hit by rough waters once it nears the second act of its storytelling.
Like some of the same issues that bogged down the series even when the great Gore Verbinski was directing the series with At World’s End, the series seems to believe that more overbloated and over-stretched CGI climax scenes are what amount to a great Pirates film, but they forget that what makes Black Pearl so spectacular is that it’s so wonderfully grounded, fleshes out it’s great character arcs, and delivers down-to-Earth action sequences (mostly). Instead, we get large over-exhausting battles with CGI dead pirates and incomprehensible plotlines. This roller coaster of quality throughout the film feels as if directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg learned to blend all of the elements of the original trilogy instead of learning from what works and what does not. The film seems to believe that ‘more is more’ when in fact a far more grounded story and climax along the lines of Verbinski’s three-way sword fight climax in Dead Man’s Chest would have done the trick far more effectively.
Accompanying the film are newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario, who play introductory characters, Henry Turner and Carina Smyth, which is quite honestly the film’s biggest strength. These two carry the film almost solely on their shoulders throughout, and it’s hard to imagine any part of the film is as enjoyable if not for the sheer delight of these two and their character motivation pushing them to the MacGuffin that the plot is being pushed toward. As much as this pirate-scientist pair improve the film to being as fun and delightful as it is, the film gets bogged down by other useless characters, mainly, and this might shock you, Jack Sparrow. Depp’s tiresome shtick has gotten rather unfunny and has pretty much gone dry at this point, but what’s so incredibly frustrating is that throughout the entirety of Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jack Sparrow does next-to-nothing worth of any substance or impactful to the story, other than in the form of goofily tripping over items and providing cheap comedy relief. While this movie is heavily focused on the mere existence of Jack Sparrow, it would be effortlessly easy to re-write the film to omit Jack Sparrow scenes, which would only result in losing many minutes of slapstick Jack Sparrow comedy, and hardly any impactful Jack-centric moments. Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow has almost become a parody of itself, and throughout the entire film, he hardly contributes a single thing to the film. Call me crazy, but I honestly think the film would have been stronger without Sparrow in the majority of the film, and a better alternative would have been to make Jack one of the MacGuffins of the story, along the lines of Luke Skywalker’s role in The Force Awakens, so that the return of Jack Sparrow could be seen as something triumphant or important, instead of the shoe-horned slapstick nonsense that we get stuck with because Jack Sparrow needs to be around for some reason.
In fact, much of the film doesn’t seem to have substance to support itself. It starts off with an incredibly strong first act reminiscent of the original, and ends off with a fantastic ending sure to delight any viewer who has embarked on the journey of this tiresome franchise, but in the middle of it all is a muddled mess filled with over-exhausting uses of truly tiresome CGI monsters, sharks, and ghosts, all for some reason or another that gets swept up in the form of incomprehensible plotlines. On top of that, the film rarely cares for any sort of continuity within the Pirates franchise, disregarding much of the rules and facts set by the films that preceded it. Much of it is grounded outside of what is considered acceptable logic in the mythology and strays away from the original three films, even if the main plot of the film is directly built off the events of At World’s End. It becomes boring, tiresome, and will have you yearning for the days that this franchise once boasted well-rounded characters and down-to-Earth storytelling, even if that itself was short-lived. This film feels uninspired and almost half-cooked as if the story worked really well in concept, but doesn’t have enough to support itself it through its hefty 129-minute run-time, which makes it the shortest Pirates film yet, so at least there’s that.
Disney has advertised this film as ‘the final adventure’, suggesting that maybe if the film flops, this might be the finale to this legendary series. Should this be the case, Dead Men Tell No Tales does offer a rather fun send-off to the franchise and wraps up a mythology started as early as 2003. If Disney does choose to end the series once and for all, the ending of this film would be the perfect place to do it. The only problem is that you’ll need to embrace quite a tiresome storm in order to get to it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is now playing in theaters nationwide.