In some ways, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise can be compared to the Transformers franchise. They’re big, bombastic visual effects extravaganzas that surprised many in their first entry, but have since disappointed on many levels. Yet despite said disappointments, they both still manage to make huge bucks at the box office.
When it comes to the Pirates movies, I tend to find myself in the minority. I enjoyed the first one okay, but really fell in love with the second entry, Dead Man’s Chest, which I thought successfully amped up the fun and scope of the original without going too far into the deep end. The third entry, At World’s End lost me completely with its overly-convoluted narrative, and by the time On Stranger Tides came around, I’d already had enough of my fill of Pirates, so I didn’t even bother.
With that in mind, it’s been around a decade since I’ve seen a Pirates movie, and I believe that’s allowed me to come in more fresh than if I’d seen On Stranger Tides six years ago. It had been a good while since I’d seen Jack Sparrow’s antics, and I found myself strangely hungry to see where this swashbuckling adventure took them in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
So how did it fare?
Let’s start with setting the scene. This particular entry follows Ben Turner — son of the long since cursed Will Turner from the original trilogy — and his journey to free his father from the confines of the Flying Dutchman. If you’ll recall, At World’s End saw Will Turner become captain of the cursed vessel, only allowing him to step on land once every ten years. He leaves Elizabeth pregnant on an abandoned island, and is forever doomed to roam the seas. As Will Turner’s son, it’s easy to see why Ben wanted to bring an end to this horrible arrangement. After years of searching, he believes he’s finally found a way to free his father from the curse…the Trident of Poseidon, which is said to have the ability to break curses (for some reason?). The only man who can help him find said trident is the down-on-his-luck Jack Sparrow.
Also in search of the trident is a woman named Carina Smyth, whose knowledge of Astronomy and Horology make her an indispensable guide for Ben and Jack. Meanwhile, on their tails is the malicious Captain Salazar, who is dead-set on getting revenge on Jack for killing him decades prior.
The movie starts off well enough. For the first act of the film, it really does a solid job of setting things in motion. It gives us just enough time with some of the new cast to help solidify their motivations, and we get enough of their personalities that we look forward to their eventual joining of forces. I’ll also say that compared to the second two entries of this franchise, this one manages to be a relatively small-scope tale. Yes, the stakes are high on an emotional level, but they aren’t the world-changing stakes of At World’s End. As such, one a core emotional level, it becomes easy to follow. That’s not to say it still doesn’t fall victim for over-convolution. While we can tell if something is good or bad on a scene-by-scene basis, the movie has trouble juggling the overarching goals of their leads.
Like At World’s End, this film does have its pitfalls in its ambition. In trying to weave a tale with many threads, it loses sight of some along the way. There are a few characters whose motivations that jumpstart their part in the story are still muddy — namely Captain Barbossa — and as the story went on, I began to realize how very little we knew of the Trident of Poseidon. Why did it work? Is it restricted in the number of curses it could break? Most importantly, why would a woman of science like Carina even be looking for an artifact like this? I’m not saying the film doesn’t answer these questions — it very well may — but in the midst of all the other dangling threads, they were answers I lost track of. Despite being a fairly contained and straightforward story, they still managed to make a fairly muddled and convoluted plot.
Also a bit disappointing was that the film seemed to lose sight of Ben Turner’s motivation as the film went on. Without a doubt, the desire for him to free his father from his curse was the most compelling and most primal one in the story, and about halfway through, we were bogged down with so many other character issues that by the time things resolved at the end it felt more like “Oh yeah, I forgot about him,” than fulfilling. It pretty much allowed its strongest emotional throughline get upstaged by everything and everyone else.
Yet another (admittedly less distracting) problem was the sheer number of logical leaps we had to take. The ocean is vast, and yet it seems like our leads and the villains find each other with little problem at all. That’s not to say I want to spend valuable screen time of them messing up, but I’d at least like a semblance of understanding HOW they came to find each other so quickly.
This may sound like a lot of issues, but all of these problems can pretty much be summed up in one sentence: the film’s narrative tends to buckle under the pressure of the slightest scrutiny.
And that’s not even including the character of Jack Sparrow. I’m not nearly as annoyed with his schtick as most people seem to be. Whenever he was on screen, I was entertained, but it seems to me that the filmmakers are afraid of developing his character in any meaningful way, which is disappointing. Were the screenwriters to take the time to do so, I’m sure there’d be a lot of real gold that would help him be all the more endearing and less of a caricature, which is something that’s sorely needed five movies in. In many ways, he seems to be stuck in an episodic TV rut. Everything and everyone around him changes, but he’s forced to stay exactly the same, for fear of a ratings drop.
But that’s not to say the film was all bad. If you’re in the mood for a swashbuckling good time, you’re likely to get exactly what you’re hoping for. I may look back and find all sorts of flaws in the narratives and characters, but in the moment itself, I was having a damn good time in the theater. Unlike most Pirates movie, the pacing wonderfully brisk. In fact, I didn’t look at my watch once while watching, which I think may be a first for me in this series. So despite its many flaws, the film worked for me on a pure popcorn flick level. It was forgettable, lighthearted, and silly, but a nice piece of escapism that many audience members will likely be plenty happy with, and that certainly counts for something.
Will you be checking out Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales this weekend? Let us know your thoughts down below!