Unlike many, I have no strong feelings towards Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. I liked the first three (I actually preferred the second one, Dead Man’s Chest, above the others as it was the best mix of character, story, and spectacle) and didn’t much care for On Stranger Tides, but I was never extraordinarily enthusiastic about the series, nor did I feel any vitriol towards it or any of the individual films. So, I went into this fifth installment with no particular expectations and an open mind.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is, true to the title, a tale told by living men (and women), and that tale is one of the search for Poseidon’s trident by Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). The film falls in nicely with the original trilogy (On Stranger Tides remains on the outside looking in) in terms of the story arc and tone. After largely abandoning loyal fans of the series with a total change of direction in On Stranger Tides, Disney and new directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg do a course correction and return to the story of the characters that put the franchise on the map.
Along the way, there are some fun and innovative action set pieces, continuing a property tradition. The climax is especially unique with some sleek visuals that will set this film apart from its summer competition. For me, however, these action beats came too far apart. When something exciting isn’t happening, the narrative significantly slows down and even feels like it’s almost at a dead stop in a couple of places. I actually found this to be true of the other films in the series, as well, which is why I’ve never been over the moon about them. And this is as much a dialogue problem as a story problem. The characters are interesting and quirky, but most of what they have to say . . . well . . . isn’t. Having said all of that, when things pick up steam, the film moves along nicely. Yet, while the story has real stakes, it also plays it safe. I can understand that; there’s a lot at stake with this film and Disney needs the old fans to return and leave happy if the franchise is to continue.
They also need new blood to inject some hope for the future into the property. And they found some. There are a couple of new primary cast members in Thwaites’s Henry Turner and Kaya Scodelario’s Corina Smyth. Both actors do well and the characters are important to the overarching Pirates mythology. They have worthwhile character arcs and will likely be welcomed by fans. Whether or not this leads to some enhanced level of stardom will depend on a number of other factors, but these are good roles for both of them to increase their profiles.
Then, of course, we have the returning Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbosa and Johnny Depp as the ever-popular Jack Sparrow. Rush is as perfect as ever for his part and Depp seems to relish being back in the only role people care to see him in, anymore. I’ve tired of Depp, myself, but I have to admit that Jack Sparrow is his baby. All of his zany, over-the-top characters that have caused so many of us to grow weary of seeing him pop up in what often seems like everything began with Jack Sparrow. It was his first role of this nature and it’s still his best. Even when the dialogue doesn’t play as funny as screenwriter Jeff Nathanson seems to believe, Depp’s delivery gives it a boost and often makes it funny in spite of itself. The film isn’t hilarious, despite Depp’s earnest efforts, but its hit ratio is unquestionably much higher than that of Baywatch.
If you’re a diehard franchise fan, don’t leave until the credits have finished rolling (if you’re truly a diehard franchise fan, you’ve already seen the film and sat through the credits, by now). The movie feels like a final chapter, nicely tying up longstanding unresolved plot threads and leaving the characters in comfortable spots that can be envisioned as a final farewell to them. And then the post-credits stinger happens and potentially changes everything. My guess is that Disney and the floundering Depp wanted to give a go at reviving the property one more time to see how much mileage is left. The main narrative is crafted as a last adventure but, if it breaks out and the audience tells them that they missed it and want more, they’ve left themselves an opening.
Ultimately, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (ugh. What a clunky title.) falls under the same umbrella as many other sequels that have come along in 2017, such as Underworld: Blood Wars, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Rings: great for those who are fans, but nothing to convert those who have already decided they aren’t into the series. I felt pretty much the same as I did about the first three Pirates films (it’s absolutely better than Tides). I thought it was fine. It had high points and it had some problems. Didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it. I appreciated the action and Depp’s efforts and I see potential in the new faces, but it’s not a particularly compelling journey for the entirety of the running time and I would have loved some dialogue that could have kept up with the cast. Bottom line: if you like the other movies in the series, you’ll like this. If you don’t, you won’t.
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