‘Pirates of the Caribbean’: At Franchise’s End (Movie Review)

Keep in mind this review is arriving before we learn what amount of treasure Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales manages to plunder at the box office, but what could be next for this series? Disney has managed to make a multi-billion dollar franchise out of a popular amusement park ride, proving anything is possible, including turning that weirdo Johnny Depp into an international superstar. Now we are five films deep in a sub-genre that has still failed repeatedly with everyone else. There is no telling what Disney plans to do, but at the very least, Dead Men Tell No Tales manages to course correct after the disastrous On Stranger Tides and give way to a fitting finale if this film indeed is that.

Getting into another rip-roaring Jerry Bruckheimer production, I should mention how there should never really be a need to justify having favorable opinions on a movie, but for some reason, a level of cynicism often gets thrown at a franchise that sets its sights on being freewheeling fun. That fun may come with, say, an extended prologue focused on numerous hangings (including young children, thanks At World’s End), but it’s Pirate-themed fun nonetheless. Whatever the case, I was quite fond of director Gore Verbinski’s first three Pirates movies and was happy to get more of that energy back in this fifth film.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (of Kon-Tiki fame) are steering the ship this time around, and even while they navigate the same issues the plague all of the films, they seem far more excited about bringing a level of energy and coherence that was missing from Rob Marshall’s brief tenure as captain. As one would hope, in addition to what the cast adds and thankless efforts from the visual effects teams and production designers, Rønning and Sandberg are sure to capture a sense of scale and make sure the flashiness of big ships at sea has a level of majesty to it. Not hurting is how they blend the fantasy elements into this somewhat more grounded chapter. Given how this film is the shortest in the franchise and much more cost effective (On Stranger Tides is currently the most expensive movie ever made), it is nice to see the results were worthwhile.

So what’s it all about? Well, Jack Sparrow (Depp) is now being pursued by an old nemesis, Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem). Salazar is a Spanish Navy Captain-turned-undead pirate killer looking for revenge. Jack is roped into this whole thing by Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who both have personal reasons for wanting to find the mythical object known as Poseidon’s Trident. Jack is, of course, the one man who can help with this, leading to a variety of misadventures and swashbuckling action. Other familiar faces show up as well, including Geoffrey Rush’s anti-hero Captain Barbossa, who continues to emphasize this series’ habit of playing into humorous pirate sensibilities and double-crosses.

With the amount of time between films, it is of little surprise that Dead Men Tell No Tales has a lot in common with The Curse of the Black Pearl. It’s not a straight rehash, but there is a welcome familiarity. This is most notably due to the use of Jack Sparrow. While the first three films featured Jack in what was really a supporting role in the Orlando Bloom/Kiera Knightley narrative, On Stranger Tides put the whole story on Jack’s legs and boy did they buckle. With Dead Men Tell No Tales, Henry and Carina are the main players. This works in the film’s favor, but it brings up another issue.

While Johnny Depp certainly earned that Oscar nomination back in 2003, this 5th entry highlights just how worn down the performance has become. Sure, Jack’s nonsense is still enjoyable, but it is no longer fresh, and his antics distract more than anything. Fortunately Rush has always been my personal MVP of the series, and this film even manages to place some new ruffles in the feathered hats he loves so much. Not hurting is a very game Bardem, who not only chews the scenery but spits it back out as black goo.

We are once again in fantasy territory with this film, and the CG continues to be a terrific hallmark of this series. Don’t’ worry about how realistic the physics are. Instead, take in the fun that comes from zombie sharks, ghost pirates who aren’t all there and some other terrific set pieces. It’s a shame that a lower budget means shrouding some of the action in murkier sets (or at nighttime in the rain), but this still feels like a grand action-adventure. It could have used more sword fights (always cool), but I’ll happily settle for the creative use of a guillotine (less macabre than it sounds).

Of course, this film still finds a way to overcomplicate itself with narrative excess. It also doesn’t benefit from the general weirdness Verbinski so happily engaged in with his films. Still, in addition to the creative look of the ghost pirates and another example of how great Disney’s de-aging CG work can be for a Sparrow flashback, Dead Men Tell No Tales tries to make up for filling its ocean with too much exposition, backstory and motivations. I’ve always enjoyed how these films treat themselves like theme park rides, as it is rather fitting and gives way to the escapist nature of a summer blockbuster involving pirates.

That’s not to say there is nothing on this film’s mind. While not as heavy as the first two Verbinski sequels, which had plenty of political subtexts, Dead Men Tell No Tales adds an apt look at what it means to be a smart woman in the company of simple-minded, but higher ranking men. It’s what gives Scoldelario the edge, as far as which of the two new, young cast members plays best with the rest of this wacky crew. Speaking of which, franchise fans will be happy to see plenty of familiar faces stemming back to the first film, and I’m thinking of more than just Kevin McNally’s delightful Mr. Gibbs.

Perhaps I’m speaking from my relative disappointment with the 4th film, given my fondness for the franchise in general, but Dead Men Tell No Tales does what I want a movie in this series to do. It’s fun, exciting to watch, full of creative displays of practical and CG visuals and quite pirate-y. 2003 gave us a witty adventure blockbuster that took everyone by surprise. The series may be long in the tooth, but I was still happy to go on this latest voyage with the wind in the sails moving things in an enjoyable direction.

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