It’s been six years since the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and ten years since the conclusion of the original trilogy with At World’s End. The former has some mixed reception due to the weak character development and overuse of familiar tropes. Overall that film felt like an enjoyable side addition to the franchise, rather than a significant progression of the pirates universe. With half a decade to improve on these less than impressive features, I had high hopes for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. While the latest film did not make an effort to move away from the standard ingredients, it was still enjoyable enough to feel like a legitimate sequel. Spoiler Alert!
If you’ve seen a pirates film before, you’ll no doubt recognize some of these remnants. A vision from the past introduces our new key characters. A dynamic attraction is set up between a female lead and a male lead. The main reason most have come to see the movie, Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, is reintroduced in the midst of some sort of pirate-ey hi-jinks. It’s everything that made the first three movies so memorable, and it’s everything that made the fourth movie a bit played out.
My primary hang-up with DMTNT came from over-saturation. I identified several moments where they were trying to jam far too much subject matter into an available space. I was unimpressed with the focus on Carina. Henry Turner trying to free his father from the Flying Dutchman’s curse would have provided enough interesting content alongside captain Salazar’s conflict with Sparrow, but it barely got any attention. Carina’s quest to find her birthright from an estranged father was virtually uninteresting and further muddled the busy plot. She repeatedly overshadowed Henry, forcing both of their characters into an unnecessary love interest. This was charming between Elizabeth and Will, but now that we’ve reached the fifth move, it feels like we’re just constantly starting over with new couples, rather than moving forward. Additionally, Carina’s presence led to the reveal of Hector Barbossa being her father. Sure, this had the potential to be a tear-jerking reunion, but it was so tacked-on that it felt practically exploitative.
Similar to Carina and the ill-placed spotlight, there was also the confusing focus on British Naval Lieutenant, Scarfield. I was racking my brain trying to figure out why he was getting so much screen time after they escaped execution. This is another tired expectation that has existed since the beginning. While Jack and his crew typically face some sort of pirate adversary, they simultaneously need to escape the never wavering clutches of the British Navy. This made for a fantastic dichotomy leading to the conclusion in At World’s End. In this case the inclusion was made laughably unimportant with his unceremonious death. This subplot also introduced the witch character, which unless she is going to be playing an important role in the next film, served absolutely no purpose.
The new characters weren’t the only ones to suffer from over-indulgence in plot. Returning characters seemed to only get attention in small doses, rarely being explored from a meaningful perspective. Will Turner could have played a much stronger role after being absent for an entire decade. Instead they went with obvious option, reserving him for the final scene. I enjoyed seeing Barbossa featured as much as he was, and his character development was still interesting to behold. The build up to his daughter reveal could have been handled more organically, which might have made it feel more needed.
These choices aside, Jack Sparrow’s portrayal was the most upsetting. From head to toe, he was still the same Jack Sparrow that we’ve come to know throughout the series, which was also the problem. There was seemingly some regression with his personality. Where in the last two films we learned things about his character that shed new light on him, there was hardly anything new to absorb here. His comedic moments felt like they were struggling to surface, playing on the same elements that made him so enticing before. This placed him in the passenger’s seat, with bland teenagers taking the wheel. What proactively worked to salvage this, was the more than interesting flashback involving a young Jack Sparrow and his counterpart, Captain Salazar. This is ground that was waiting to be covered since the Black Pearl days, and it was quite well executed.
Building from this conflict, Captain Salazar proved to be quite the worthy bad guy. The Pirates series has always been able to create unique enemies, moving away from previous examples to introduce something new. That has not changed here, as the aesthetic design and motivation of the ghostly crew are interesting to say the least. They are perhaps the most ruthless force to threaten the Caribbean thus far. Their deeply tragic origin is expertly supported by each monologue delivered by Captain Salazar himself. It’s safe to say that their presence is one of the main things that will keep me coming back to re-watch the movie. This is also the primary reason that I was so perturbed by the cramped plot. Captain Salazar’s crew could have easily existed as the exclusive antagonist.
One thing that has remained consistently impressive throughout any Pirates of the Caribbean film, are the well choreographed action sequences, coupled with impressive animation. Fortunately, this component remained strong in DMTNT, entering when needed and contributing visually stimulating scenes. This goes beyond sticking to cliche ship battles and sword fights. There are always a number of scenes that stick out, developing a personality for the entire picture. I’ll concede that the scene where they dragged an entire bank through a town was a bit over the top, but aside from that I found most of the action quite thrilling.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is not without its fundamental problems. Misdirected focus is definitely the biggest offender, robbing the compelling areas in favor of less impactful storylines. Playing strengths is a key practice when upholding a series’ integrity, but this needs only be present enough to serve a familiar appeal. The fifth entry to series is guilty of crimes that direct sequels typically make. That being said, the film succeeds where it counts, offering an intriguing foe and moving the story in a relatively forward fashion. My expectation is that Dead Men Tell No Tales will compliment the next film, just as Dead Man’s Chest complimented At World’s End. Overall, I would give the film 6.8 pieces of eight, out of 10.