This review was originally featured on The Film Yap.
Eventually, your childhood heroes will let you down. This is is a hard truth that comes with growing up, and Johnny Depp’s gradual rotting from the inside out has been one of the most disappointing celebrity trajectories of my relatively young life.
It’s one thing to learn the original pirate hero you loved as a child was basically a slave trader before he came to Hollywood and a statutory rapist once he was an established star (Errol Flynn, star of the 1935 swashbuckler Captain Blood, for those who are curious); it’s quite another to watch in real time as the actor you idolized when you were 13 becomes everything that disgusts you as an adult.
Yes, Depp is the star of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth entry of a franchise that influenced me so deeply as a teenager that I wrote my master’s thesis about real pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, he still manages to evoke laughs as Jack Sparrow, though the magic and originality has long since diminished. But this is all I’m going to say about Depp in this review because I simply don’t like him anymore. And, unlike 2011’s On Stranger Tides, there is much more to this movie than Jack Sparrow, and that is really the only reason Dead Men Tell No Tales succeeds.
One of the hard lessons On Stranger Tides taught Disney is that no one really wants to see a Pirates movie where Jack Sparrow is the main character. As a result, Dead Men goes back to its roots and takes another lesson from Star Wars in making the series about the Turner family — because without them, there is no emotional anchor, no reason to care. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are the Skywalkers of this pirate saga, modernized archetypes in the Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland vein that audiences love and will come back to, time and time again. (Have you seen Captain Blood? No? Fix that immediately.)
And trust me, that’s as big of a surprise to Pirates fans as it was to Disney. No one walked out of The Curse of the Black Pearl wanting more of Will and Elizabeth’s love story, but it’s that story that gave the events of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End meaning. For better or for worse, Jack Sparrow the character is inherently driftless. Giving us a story about Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who wants nothing more than to free his father from the curse of being the new Davy Jones, the makers of Dead Men Tell No Tales smartly put Jack Sparrow right back where he belongs: as a secondary character, whose only motivation is staying alive and whose influence on the plot is incidental at best and mildly chaotic at worst.
Although Dead Men goes full Disney in focusing on Henry and Will’s relationship while barely remembering that Elizabeth was actually the parent to raise him, Henry Turner is probably the best Pirates fans could hope for when it comes to Will and Elizabeth’s spawn (Jack’s words, not mine). Outwardly, Henry looks like Will and certainly embodies his “rescue first, ask questions later” attitude, but inwardly, Henry is just as clever and just as nerdy as his mother ever was. While Elizabeth was an expert on pirates long before she ever became their king, Henry’s specialty is the mythology of the sea. His encyclopedic knowledge leads him to search for two things: the Trident of Poseidon, which will supposedly break his father’s curse, and Jack Sparrow, for … some reason.
Like I said: Jack is incidental. Henry needs to find him because Jack Sparrow makes Disney the big bucks.
Along the way, Henry’s search leads him to Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, one of my favorite underrated actresses), an orphan-turned-scientist who is also searching for the Trident. Carina spends much of the movie brushing off accusations of witchery because being an expert in such mystical subjects as astronomy and horology while simultaneously being a woman obviously makes you a witch. Carina’s plight may seem exaggerated for laughs, but to me it was the least funny and most real thing in the movie. Smart, capable women are still being undermined by ignorant men who underestimate and fear them. It’s nice to see at least one of us overcome this eternal struggle, even if it is only in a silly pirate movie.
Thus, Henry and Carina are peas in a pod: they’re smarter than everyone else on deck, they have the same goals, and they both have Daddy Issues. Of course they fall in love. The only reason the dual Daddy Issues subplot doesn’t bother me here is because, in Carina’s case, it’s pretty secondary to her character. Carina already knows who she is when she comes into Henry’s world but, like any scientist, that’s just not enough. She needs all the data, and to find it, she never stops thinking, never stops searching for the information she’s missing both about the universe and about herself. By the end of the movie, she finds what she’s looking for, and she finds someone to share it with, and, well, that’s not nothing.
And this brings me to the true MVP of the Pirates franchise: Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Barbossa’s journey from cartoonish villain to the most noble (and successful) pirate on the seven seas is one of the true joys of the Pirates series as a whole, and Rush certainly doesn’t disappoint here. One revelation that could induce eye rolls instead becomes quietly poignant simply because Rush is so good. Much like Keira Knightley (and Javier Bardem, mildly interesting but criminally underused as this film’s villain), he’s really too good for these movies, which makes me grateful that he’s here at all.
From a technical standpoint, Dead Men is fine, I guess. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) bring fresh eyes to the series, which helps to capture the wonder and wildness of the sea, while Jeff Nathanson’s script never quite lives up to the wit and zaniness of the first three, penned by superteam Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Still, there is one exchange in Dead Men between a father and daughter that is note-perfect and worthy of the originals. You’ll know it when you see it.
Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this franchise still has a significant woman problem. I think I counted five women whose parts range from lead actress to featured extra; three of them have lines, and one of those three is such a mean-spirited joke that she would’ve been better off not there at all. (And don’t give me the “historically accurate” excuse: I have an MA in colonial Atlantic and Caribbean history, and the erasure of women and people of color in these movies is so far from historically accurate it’s laughable.)
And this is a mild spoiler that was already spoiled in the last trailer, but Knightley turns up … as one of the women who has no lines at all. However, she still manages to pack her one scene with more emotion than the past two films combined. Knightley is a goddess, and we do not deserve her (and yes, I will fight you to the death on this).
What’s left to say? If you’re a fan of the original Pirates trilogy, you won’t have much to complain about. The filmmakers haven’t been quiet in saying they wanted to get back to the spirit of The Curse of the Black Pearl for this film, but Dead Men feels more like Dead Man’s Chest than anything else, so your mileage may vary, I guess.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is effective some of the time and fairly ridiculous most of the time, but at least it gets the characters right. The old ones are familiar, the new ones compelling. For me, a girl who spent too many years reading Pirates fan fiction and memorizing every line of dialogue in the first movie (including the deleted scenes), that is enough to make me happy. Despite age-induced cynicism and fallen idols, I liked this movie. Maybe you will, too.