Making a good sequel is an imperfect science. You can follow a formula that worked in the past only to end up with a flawed imitation (or something far worse). For every Star Wars: The Force Awakens that hits the mark, there are countless other sequels that miss it entirely.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t a failure, but its blatant efforts to recapture the magic of the earliest installments of the franchise does put a damper on the fun. Still, the extent to which Dead Men Tell No Tales is modeled after the first two films of the franchise is ambitious.
What Dead Men Tell No Tales lacks in originality, it boldly makes up for in its visual scope.
The fifth installment of Disney’s blockbuster franchise based on its popular theme park attraction (which still seems like bizarre source material, even after 14 years and five films), Dead Men Tell No Tales pairs the directing duo of Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki, Marco Polo) with screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, the Rush Hour sequels). The film finds Johnny Depp’s eccentric pirate Jack Sparrow once again at the center of a supernatural adventure on the high seas, as he’s pursued by the undead Spanish Navy Captain Armando Salazar, played by Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men).
In a clear effort to get the band back together, the film also features returning cast members Geoffrey Rush as the pirate Hector Barbossa, Kevin McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, and brief appearances by franchise veterans Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as Will and Elizabeth Turner, respectively. Newcomers to the franchise include Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt) as Henry Turner — Will and Elizabeth’s son — and Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner franchise) as Carina Smyth, an astronomer on a quest to uncover her past by finding a legendary treasure.
It all feels so familiar. Thwaites and Scodelario’s characters slot in nicely as the next generation of reluctant companions for Jack along his journey, with Thwaites’ Henry Turner even going so far as to be on the same quest – to save his father from a sea curse – as Bloom’s Will Turner three movies earlier. The relationship between all three characters — Henry, Carina, and Jack — also follows a similar course as it did with Will, Elizabeth, and Jack in those early films, and the similarities don’t stop there.
In much the same way those early films found a good balance between swashbuckling adventure and supernatural spectacle, Dead Men Tell No Tales blends some genuinely exciting sequences with some effectively creepy set pieces. Bardem’s character, crew, and ship take all the right cues from Barbossa’s phantom pirates in Curse of the Black Pearl and the Oscar-nominated, makeup-driven masterpiece of Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones and the crew of the cursed Flying Dutchman in 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest. The action sequences are also a satisfying treat in Dead Men Tell No Tales, and while there’s a sense that some of the key players are indeed getting on in years, the set pieces play to the cast members’ strengths and serve up a nice reminder why those first few films were so much fun.
The novelty of Depp’s Jack Sparrow has worn off.
Much like Nighy and Rush in those first two installments of the franchise, Bardem also manages to steal every scene he’s featured in – which is no small feat when Depp is in full Jack Sparrow affectation. Captain Salazar and his crew, undead and frozen in the physical condition that marked their final moments among the living, are a terrifying sight and Bardem throws himself into his monstrous character to wonderfully scary results. Seeing him stalk around the set and chew up scenery also makes it that much more obvious how ill-used Ian McShane was as the villain of the previous, relatively forgettable 2011 sequel, On Stranger Tides.
The other big problem with Dead Men Tell No Tales might just be that, after four movies of the series, the novelty of Depp’s Jack Sparrow has worn off.
In those first few, well-received Pirates of the Caribbean films, the weaknesses in some of the supporting characters and story were overshadowed by the off-kilter unpredictability of Depp’s franchise-leading pirate captain. With Depp, Rush, and Nighy commanding audiences’ attention (and a special guest worth watching for), there were more than enough eye-catching performances to cover for the films’ problematic elements. Five films in, however, Jack Sparrow is a known commodity – leaving many of those problems painfully exposed.
Thwaites and Scodelario make admirable attempts to give their characters some individuality and depth, but the story and dialogue doesn’t do them any more favors than it did Bloom and Knightley – and this time, Jack Sparrow’s antics aren’t enough to hide the script’s flaws. Choppy transitions from one scene to the next, some perplexing decisions (and leaps in logic) by characters, and pacing issues cause some scenes to drag on while others race by too quickly to absorb.
The end result leaves you wondering whether those first two films – which share so much else in common with this one – suffered the same issues and we were just too distracted by Jack Sparrow and the beautiful scenery to notice.
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are always packed with spectacular set pieces, and Dead Men Tell No Tales is no exception.
Whether it’s a simple shot of a massive ship sailing the high seas or a complicated battle sequence with various computer-generated monsters and other supernatural elements joining the fray in a churning ocean, there’s a level of detail in Dead Men Tell No Tales that makes the film feel bigger than the screen it’s on. And for all its flaws, what Dead Men Tell No Tales lacks in originality or surprises, it boldly attempts to make up for in its visual scope.
Whether it succeeds as a sequel to one of the most popular movie franchises of all time will depend on if audiences will come away feeling happy with the familiarity, or put off by it. For us, Dead Men Tell No Tales feels a little too much like a story we’ve heard more than a few times already.
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