Overview: Jack Sparrow confronts a ghost from his past that seeks revenge. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 129 minutes.
Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate: Led by Gore Verbinski’s vision, the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies were marked by entertaining adventure sprinkled with well-integrated magic and inventive, ambitious visuals. The films explored piracy as a rejection of social expectations and moral simplicity, through eccentric and fascinating characters. After a disappointing fourth installment, the franchise seeks real closure in its fifth and final chapter.
The way in which directors Joachin Rønning and Espen Sandberg and writer Jeff Nathanson go about about seeking closure is to let Jack Sparrow’s (Johnny Depp) youth catch up to him, in the form of Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem). Salazar, a former pirate hunter of the Spanish Royal Navy, wants revenge against Jack for the part he played leading to his crew’s curse decades ago. Cursed to sail the seas as grotesque ghosts and barred from stepping foot on land, Salazar and his crew long to continue their crusade against pirates using the Trident of Poseidon.
Introducing and developing two major protagonists and a new villain, exploring a major character’s backstory, all while aiming to wrap up a franchise is quite a feat, and ultimately and Dead Men Tell No Tales is bogged down by its ambitions.
Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her: Jack Sparrow and his womanizing, drunken ways are at this point tiring, and as a main character and the face of the franchise, he is passive throughout, his most active moments taking place in his flashbacks involving Salazar. Also surprising is the extent to which Salazar’s revenge, and the glimpse it allows us into Jack’s past, feels unnecessary and unrelated to the other characters. Ultimately, Jack Sparrow is more compelling as an enigma than as a man whose past is wholly laid bare for the audience.
Two new characters, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina (Kaya Scodelario) round out the main characters cast, and are unfortunately, part of the problem this film has in terms of its lack of focus. Henry is the son of William Turner, and seeks an end to his curse and reunite his family. When he is allowed to simply interact with Jack or Carina, Henry is one of the strongest elements of the film, with a sincerity that is largely absent otherwise, and his strength and naiveté has hints of Will’s steadfast youth in the first Pirates film. Unfortunately his search for his father is not given its due focus, as other characters, villains, and plot threads get in the way.
Carina is stern in a way that harkens back to Elizabeth’s level-headed origins. An astronomer who has a somewhat ambiguous and trite goal of discovering who she is, her character feels extraneous. The discovery of a familial relation to a major character seems reverse engineered, a plot twist that aims to justify her character’s existence. As feisty and often-entertaining as she is, Carina’s character feels like a distraction.
Geoffrey Rush is in top form as Barbossa, a now-wealthy and enterprising pirate, who now sports a huge curled wig and over-the-top finery. As with Will and Elizabeth this movie doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with Barbossa, so a tenuous connection is created in which Barbossa becomes an axis in the conflict between Salazar and Jack that further confuses the plot.
Dead Men Tell No Tales marks Orlando Bloom’s return as William Turner, cursed to live his life as Davy Jones after At World’s End. Also returning from the original cast is Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), a character who happened to inspire my childhood obsession with pirates and whose miniscule role in this film broke my heart. The two are relegated to what are essentially cameos and have about 10 minutes of screen time between them. Thus without reminders of Elizabeth and William’s loss, Henry’s quest to reunite his family fades to the background when it could have very effectively been the emotional core of the film.
The Dead Horse: The lack of heart in this film is the result of Elizabeth, William, Barbossa, and Jack being separated, the latter two not interacting for the first time until about halfway into the film. Had the original cast truly returned and been allowed to bicker, struggle, and ultimately triumph as they once did, there would have been more to connect to in terms of emotion or even simply nostalgia. Instead there are loosely connected battles and chase scenes that feel cold and unimportant.
Dead Men Tell No Tales, in some ways shows signs of being burdened by the weight of the failure of On Stranger Tides, and loads its runtime with entirely too much, yet still manages to include very little of the good-natured fun the series once had. This film acknowledges the entertainment value of the naval battles, set pieces, fantasy, and CGI, that made the original three films so well-loved. But it includes these elements without connecting them to anything, without understanding that these alone are not what make Pirates of the Caribbean entertaining.
In a film meant to serve as a conclusion, a true reunion of its characters would have been a more satisfying focus; the characters and more importantly the interactions and connections we’ve grown to love are given very little of the film’s runtime. In this way Dead Men Tell No Tales is disappointing not only by its own faults but also as a lackluster end for its characters.
Overall: Dead Men Tell No Tales introduces two young leads in a way that feels suspiciously like a series priming itself for a reboot, and largely neglects the relationships of its earlier leads. In abandoning the exploits and desires of the characters that made Pirates both entertaining and heartfelt, all that is preserved from the franchise’s former glory is CGI and set pieces.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures