When the opening sequence of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was done, I had a huge smile on my face. I wish I could tell you it lasted.
The good news for fans of the series is that, unlike the mostly unrelated story of On Stranger Tides, DMTNT returns to the main mythology, adding to the primary “Curse of the Flying Dutchman and/or Black Pearl” storyline we’re familiar with. The bad news is we didn’t need more, and to the extent that we do, this movie misunderstands what it is. What made the first two Pirates sequels exciting was that more of Gore Verbinski’s imagination got unleashed every time, from the walking seafood smorgasbord that was Davy Jones to a giant Naomie Harris as goddess of the sea. Here, the new antagonist Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his crew are wonderfully imagined as drowned ghosts with bits of their bodies simply missing – they’re like updated versions of Santi from The Devil’s Backbone, and deserve to win all the special effects awards.
But aside from that, this is one of those sequels that feels the need to fill in gaps you neither wanted nor needed explained, like why Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is called Jack Sparrow (in a groaningly obvious joke, reading the end credits reveals that his mentor was actually named “Captain Morgan”). It also takes place some 20 years after At World’s End, despite nobody onscreen having visibly aged that much – would a few gray hairs have been so hard? The plot itself is just a remix of stuff that you liked in the previous movies: heroes escape capture and execution by colonials, there are chase scenes and swordfights, and then for most of the movie everyone’s in ships looking for a hidden island that holds a magical McGuffin – as usual, the ships belong to Jack, a colonial a-hole, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and the supernatural enemy du jour. If you literally only want the same thing you got before, you may be satisfied.
In the movie’s most subtle touch, it does seem that alcoholism is finally catching up with Jack. He fails at a major heist, he alienates his crew, and even trades his magic compass for a bottle of rum…a move that the mythology only now tells us will magically unleash a curse of the former compass-bearer’s worst fear, who in this case is Salazar. And if you’re wondering how Salazar is different form every other ghost pirate, the answer is that he’s not a pirate – he was the guy tasked with ridding the seas of all pirates, and he nearly succeeded until he was tricked into trapping his ship in the Devil’s Triangle by a young Jack Sparrow (or as Salazar mostly calls him, “Yak Barrow”). He’s actually more sympathetic than Jack when you really think about it, not that the filmmakers did.
Of course it wouldn’t be a pirate movie if Jack didn’t somehow also cross paths with a boringly bland young man and his spunky love interest. Here those roles are filled by Brenton Thwaites’ Henry Turner, whose last name is a giveaway that Disney can’t seem to decide if they want to spoil or not; and Kaya Scodalerio’s Carina, an astronomer accused of being a witch who so pointedly doesn’t know who her father is that you can pretty much start narrowing it down immediately. Sam Claflin’s boring lead from the last film is forgotten, as is most of that movie. Everyone seeks the trident of Poseidon, which is said to have the power to break a curse, and everyone has a curse of some sort they want lifted, though “I don’t know who my dad is” seems a smaller order of magnitude than “demonic ghosts are committing mass murder.”
If I wanted to see a Disney movie about a resourceful young woman who can navigate by the stars and brings along an obnoxious egomaniac for the ride, I’d watch Moana. But the extent to which this plays like a whitewashed version of that cartoon at times is both amusing and questionable – doesn’t the Mouse have a story department that goes, “Hey, wait a minute…”?
David Wenham, by the way, is completely wasted as the colonial bad guy – the story sets him up to be a major antagonist and then he just does nothing. Paul McCartney is amusing in a cameo that’s completely irrelevant to the story, but suggests that Depp just likes pretending to be related to every English rock star he can find.
Without spoiling too much, there are elements here that suggest finality; however, the most significant one is completely undercut by a post-credits scene that suggests where a sequel would go (it’s utterly familiar territory, sadly). If this series must continue, and it probably shouldn’t since it’s running on fumes, a younger Jack Sparrow adventure with a new lead would probably be the best way to go. Depp still clearly loves doing the silent clown slap-shtick, but he just as clearly can’t do it as well as he used to.
If you’re going to see the movie anyway, I recommend the 3D, and kudos to Disney for actually press-screening it as such. The visuals are outstanding, and you might as well experience them in the most glory.
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