By the time fifth film comes around, as they often seem to lately, most franchises have run out of gas. 8-12 hours have already been spent exploring the rules of the universe, and the quietest nooks and crannies of the interesting parts of a character’s life. Where could it possibly continue to go? Is an audience not yet tired of the same actors in the same performances? How much more could there be to care about?
In the case of Pirates Of the Caribbean, a reliable Disney cash cow since the franchise debuted in 2003 with Curse of The Black Pearl, audiences have answered with their wallets; they will watch as much as Pirates will put out.
One-sided and one-dimensional as this praise is, audiences fawn over the beloved protagonist Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) even more. Despite Depp’s stardom faltering in recent years, both professionally and personally, his bumbling but charismatic Sparrow remains popular with each installment. A multitude of children’s hospital visits in full costume and makeup have kept Depp in tune with the spirit of the character; for 14 years, he has donned the eyeliner and delivered every smarmy line with only the rarest hint of exhaustion.
This is no small feat; by the fourth, lifeless installment On Stranger Tides, he seemed to be the only one not in on the joke that the Pirates franchise had become. Panned critically, Tides was wholly disappointing to all except the Disney executives whose pockets it helped to line. Despite being the most expensive film ever produced, it cracked the billion-dollar milestone with ease.
Seeking to make up for lost time and lost fans, Dead Men Tell No Tales is more than ready to go back to basics and return to the spirit of the original films that were so wildly successful.
Depp, of course, returns, as do Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. The latter two, while sharing equal billing as Depp throughout the original trilogy, were absent for Tides, and absent they largely remain. Holding all of 5 and 2 minutes of screen time respectively, their returns are appropriately understated. As easy as it would be to bait fans with returning stars being the forefront of advertising attention (see Mark Hamill getting second billing for 30 seconds of silent screen-time in The Force Awakens), Dead Men avoids the cheap play. However scarce, their appearances are welcome and exhilarating. Rush, having featured prominently in each film as Captain Hector Barbossa, hams it up as usual, bringing an element of zany fun to his scenes that can be rivaled only by Depp himself.
Javier Bardem as the nightmarish specter Captain Salazar is a passable villain, but a better mechanism to simply advance the plot. Outside of his rivalry with Sparrow, there is little that drives the story forward beyond the existence and ensuing hunt for the mythical “Trident of Poseidon”, a treasure lost to time that can control the sea itself. As epic a prize as it sounds, the Trident serves more as a way to bring its film’s leads together and to set up future films than as a central element unto itself.
I can go on for as many paragraphs as I have room for about how much of an incredible improvement Dead Men is over Stranger Tides. What matters more, especially to franchise fans and movie execs, is if it is good enough to keep the Pirates torch blazing.
Cheesy and ridiculous, but immutably fun, Dead Men Tell No Tales offers enough of a feel of its most beloved predecessors that fans will flock to it as a return of more than just lost leads; it is also a return to form.
Better Than: See above for all of the indictments of On Stranger Tides
Not As Good As: Curse Of The Black Pearl, Dead Man’s Chest, At World’s End
You May Also Like: Avengers, another Disney tent-pole series with fun and charismatic performances