It’s been almost 15 years (if you can believe it!) since fans first set sail with Captain Jack Sparrow and the crew of the Black Pearl in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The first movie was a thrilling, swashbuckling adventure that was far better than a movie based on an amusement park ride had any right to be. While the franchise has seen some diminishing returns over the years, Captain Jack heads for the high seas once again in “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” out Memorial Day weekend.
The Pirates franchise has always had a lot of nostalgic pull for me. I was in high school and early college when the first three movies came out, at a time when I was really starting to get into movies as a hobby. “The Curse of the Black Pearl” was one of the very first DVDs I purchased to add to my personal movie collection. So, I’m definitely a bit biased when it comes to this franchise. “Dead Men Tell No Tales” hasn’t been welcomed by critics (about 32 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), though the 73 percent audience rating indicates I’m not the only fan with nostalgia! 😉 Here’s a breakdown of my thoughts on the film:
- Returning to its roots: The fourth Pirates movie, “On Stranger Tides,” is widely regarded as the low point in the series. Although it has some fun moments, it’s ultimately rather forgettable. Say what you will about the polarizing Pirates 2 and 3 “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” (I’m personally a fan), but those movies had more memorable flair and some eye-popping, over-the-top set pieces. “Dead Men Tell No Tales” feels more like a return to form for the series. It’s on a smaller scale than Pirates 2 and 3 and captures some of the feel of the original (though “The Curse of the Black Pearl” remains the crown jewel of the franchise).
- Reflecting on legacy: Disney apparently didn’t listen to my feedback when they announced the fourth movie but didn’t center the story on Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry Turner. 😉 I felt that was a missed opportunity. However, I’m glad they did it this time! I really liked the film’s opening, where a young Henry goes looking for his father, who was cursed during “At World’s End” to set foot on land only one day every ten years. Henry’s innocence and idealism reminded me a lot of Will from the first Pirates movie. The movie even touches on the legacy of fan favorite Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). The surprise reveal involving Barbossa’s family seemed a bit sudden but I just went with it. I thought it was interesting that in this movie, Barbossa is as prosperous and living as luxuriant a life as he’s ever been, but he’s not really happy. After all he’s been through, perhaps he’s finding the pirate life and constant fighting over riches a bit empty? He finally gets some closure at the end of this film, though I still wouldn’t bet on him never returning for a future adventure. The film has some nice bit of closure for Will and Elizabeth as well.
- Swashbuckling stuntwork: As referenced earlier, the Pirates movies are known for their over-the-top stunts and set pieces, and the fifth movie is no exception. The film’s opening sequence involves Captain Jack and Co. literally stealing an entire bank; not just robbing it — they literally drag the entire building through the streets, though they end up losing all the money inside along the way. While I have heard some comments that this scene came off as too “ridiculous,” I feel like these fun, crazy sequences are just par for the course in this franchise. I also thought the spinning guillotine scene was pretty funny, with Captain Jack once again narrowly avoiding disaster.
- Flashbacks: I already mentioned the scene of young Henry looking for his father, but I also really liked the flashback of young Jack Sparrow outwitting Captain Salazar. CGI de-aging techniques are getting pretty realistic, and it was fun to get a peek at Jack’s origin.
- Cool effects: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, no one can really fault the Pirates movies for having half-hearted special effects. There were some pretty cool effects used on Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his crew, who sort of look like they’re floating through water with embers falling around them (it sounds weird but I promise, it does look cool). I loved the island that reflects starlight, the reappearance of the Black Pearl after being trapped in a bottle, as well as the final sequence where the sea parts and they find Poseidon’s Trident, which is supposed to break curses at sea.
- Ghost/zombie sharks: I know they aren’t realistic, but the ghost/zombie sharks looked super cool. Please bring them back for the next movie!
What still needs work
- Music: Although I love the music for the original Pirates movies, it felt like the music wasn’t quite as epic here. The best musical moments were actually themes that were pulled from the previous movies.
- Captain Salazar and his crew: I loved the visual effects used for Salazar and his cursed crew, but I wish the film had devoted more time to fleshing out these characters. I know sometimes people complain about movies getting too long, but I wouldn’t have minded an extra half hour tacked onto this film to expand a few concepts. Some more time for Barbossa and Will and Elizabeth would have been welcome, also.
- The humor: There are some pretty funny moments in this movie, but it’s not as quotable as some of the past films.
- The finale: I really liked the setting for the finale, which takes place on the bottom of the ocean with the water parted on both sides. However, I wish there had been a lengthier, more epic sword fight (the Pirates movies have featured some great swordplay). The final sequence felt like it was over a little too quickly.
- Captain Jack Sparrow: I’m still trying to decide how I felt about the film’s use of its main character. Johnny Depp’s star power had faded somewhat over the past decade, after some big budget misses at the box office. However, his performance in the first movie was a revelation (I’d even forgotten about that Oscar nom). Captain Jack had the appearance of being a bumbling idiot, but he was actually far cleverer than he seemed. His character worked well with Will Turner acting as his more straight-laced foil. In the fifth movie he almost comes across as too bumbling, and I’m not sure he fully earns his crew back at the end of the film. It also seems like maybe Depp’s heart wasn’t fully in this performance. Still, I think this movie fixed one of the main issues with “On Stranger Tides,” which over-relied on Depp’s character to carry the movie. Captain Jack is always best when he’s part of an ensemble, adding a bit of quirkiness to the mix.
Bottom line: Overall I enjoyed this movie and thought it was a much stronger outing than “On Stranger Tides,” though it did have its issues. I had fun watching it, which is what Pirates movies are supposed to be all about.