Raleigh, N.C. — The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Curse of the Black Pearl, remains one of my favorite movies of this century. When it hit theaters in 2003, it was the perfect antithesis to everything I hated about cinematic epics like Lord of the Rings. The story didn’t drag. The movie wasn’t filled with 30 to 45 minute stretches of nothing happening just to get to a five minute battle scene. No one was mopey.
In 2003, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow was a breath of fresh air. It was the first time, at least in a family movie and certainly the first time in a Disney movie, that there was little to nothing to actually like about our hero. He wasn’t virtuous. He wasn’t handsome. He wasn’t seeking redemption. He wasn’t a macho ladies’ man.
Jack Sparrow was a flouncing drunk. In his best moments, he accidentally won us over. He saved the day only when the day had something to offer him.
I miss that Jack Sparrow.
Now, five movies and 14 years into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Jack is only comic relief. And look, he’s a funny character. He always has been, so I am not saying I don’t want Jack Sparrow to make me laugh at all. I just want to see him outwit his opponents instead of stumbling backwards into victory in every single fight.
The latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, isn’t the worst the franchise has to offer. That really isn’t high praise though, considering that Curse of the Black Pearl is the only truly good movie of the bunch.
Dead Men Tell No Tales starts with a meeting between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and his young son, who is a walking encyclopedia of ocean myths and legends. And why shouldn’t he be? His dad is the captain of a ghost ship filled with human/marine life hybrids.
Will’s son, Henry, tells his dad that he has discovered a way to break the curse that bounds Will to the Flying Dutchman. Will tells the boy to forget it and go home.
SPOILER ALERT: He does not forget it.
Flash forward nine years and now Henry is serving in the British Navy. He tries to warn his captain about sailing into a cave known as The Devil’s Triangle. The captain doesn’t listen and the naval vessel is destroyed and everyone on board is killed. Henry, who is being held in a cell below deck, is confronted by the ghost crew’s captain. His name is Salazar (Javier Bardem) and he offers to let Henry live if he will find Jack Sparrow and tell him that Salazar is coming to kill him.
Flash forward again. This time it’s just a few days. Jack and his crew have fallen on hard times. The Black Pearl has been trapped in a bottle through some sort of water voodoo. They have a ship they aren’t even sure will float called The Dying Gull. It is sitting on a track in the middle of a beach.
After a failed bank robbery, Jack meets Carina, an astronomer that the townsfolk have mistaken for a witch. Jack helps her escape temporarily, then they are both arrested. Henry helps her escape a second time. They free Jack, and are off to find the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which will be able to break all curses at sea.
While there are plenty of familiar faces on Jack’s crew, and while Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa and his crew reemerge, Dead Men Tell No Tales spends most of its time focused on new characters. This wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t two more interesting characters that we already have something invested in being wasted in the background.
Every Pirates film to date has had an epic sword fight sequence set in unlikely surroundings. Think back to the fight in the rafters above the blacksmith’s shop in Curse of the Black Pearl or the fight on the paddle wheel in Dead Man’s Chest. Dead Men Tell No Tales is no different. This time the fight features Jack and Salazar using outstretched cannons to jump from one ship to another. It is the one moment of the film that gives you a little flutter of remembrance of just how good these movies can be.
Overall, Dead Men Tell no Tales is forgettable and that’s a shame. If this is indeed the end (or as director Joachim Rønning claims, “the beginning of the end”) of the franchise, it will go down as one of the most mystifying in Hollywood history. Now, I understand that internationally these movies have combined to make something in the area of $4 billion. Disney certainly doesn’t look at these movies as a failure.
In terms of quality though, Pirates of the Caribbean has been a case of diminishing returns. If I could compare it to a Disney ride, it wouldn’t so much be the timeless classic that inspired these movies, which is full of rich storytelling and attention to detail. The films have more in common with the Tower of Terror at Disney World. It started out with the rich storytelling and attention to detail only to drop like a runaway elevator. But hang on! You get raised back up by the prospect that cutting out the convoluted love triangle that bogged down Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End will lead to another thrilling adventure only to get dropped again by the crushing realization that Disney sees one of its best characters not as an anti-hero but as a clown.
Remember that this next sentence isn’t really saying much. Dead Men Tell No Tales is the second best movie in the five-film Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. That should tell you how sharply and how far things have fallen since 2003.
Demetri Ravanos is an executive member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for WRAL, Raleigh and Company and Military 1. He can also be heard nationally on the SB Nation Radio network.