Here’s the thing that endears me most to the original: You sit down in the boat, cast off and enjoy the journey. When you get out, you feel a sense of fun and adventure that leaves you with a smile on your face and swashbuckling in your heart.
For a while, I was worried about Pirates of the Caribbean as a movie franchise. While I loved “Curse of the Black Pearl” and “Dead Man’s Chest,” it felt like “At World’s End” and “On Stranger Tides” spun a little too far out of control, turning to deeply convoluted magical MacGuffins and confusing plots. Instead of leaving with that happy feeling I mentioned earlier, I left scratching my head a bit and fearing the films had lost their way.
Fortunately, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” regains its bearings, sets a course for the franchise’s north star and breathes new life into the series by getting back to what made the first two films so enjoyable.
It wouldn’t be a Pirates film without a magical treasure, and this time, everyone is after the Trident of Poseidon. The keeper of the trident can lift any curse and control the seas, so everyone wants to get their hands on it: Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the young son of Will and Elizabeth Turner (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in brief cameos), hopes to break Davey Jones’ curse on his father so he can have a real relationship with him; Lovable scallywag Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) still hasn’t figured out how to free the Black Pearl, which is still trapped in a tiny bottle.
He’s also being hunted down by the terrifying ghost Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem) and Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who’s become rich in the wake of the previous film and commands a fleet of pirate ships full of treasures. Also on his tail are astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a young woman intent on following a diary left to her by her father, and Scarfield (David Wenham), an officer in the Navy intent on controlling the seas and ridding it of pirates for good.
Depp’s Jack Sparrow is as delightful as ever. His shenanigans prove to be charming and funny and he’s seemingly a more thoughtful pirate this time around. We’re also treated to Jack’s origin story — that’s the “young Jack” you’ve seen in the trailers — and I’m happy to report it doesn’t feel forced or cliche. Rush brings more humanity and depth to grizzled old sea dog Barbossa than I ever imagined possible, and newcomers Scodelario and Thwaites add youthful joy to the film as Henry and Carina. Bardem, on the other hand, makes for the franchise’s best villain as Salazar — his, calm, collected exterior just barely unable to hide the menacing terror underneath. Wenham’s turn as Scarfield is, sadly, only here to help the other key pieces on the board move into place. He does a nice job with the character despite how limited his role ends up being compared to Bardem, Depp and Rush.
Visually, this is the most beautiful Pirates movie by a landslide — it’s stunning. Franchise newcomer Paul Cameron should be incredibly proud of his work here as Cinematographer. Salazar’s crew truly have a mystical, cursed look to them. I was mesmerized by Bardem’s perpetually underwater hair. The sets are more colorful and exciting than in any previous installment. That’s a welcome change after four movies full of algae greens, filthy browns and dry, dark reds. It also lends itself well to the 3D treatment if that’s your jam. Me? I’m just happy Barbossa got to trade up to a golden peg leg. That’s basically #pirategoals, right there.
The movie finds a way to squeeze its large cast into a relatively tight story without many detours, and there’s still great heart at the center of the adventure. A post-credits scene appears to act as a soft reboot of the series, and I’m curious as to what Disney will do next since it’s likely this will successfully breathe new life into the story.
Without giving away too much, it’s safe to say Pirates is at its best when it’s not just about lost treasures and magic, but family. The making (and breaking) of pirate families, blood families and lifelong allies are the heart and soul of this franchise. If that sounds a little cheesy, that’s because it is. But somehow, “Dead Men” takes those concepts and creates the very same feeling as its inspiration. This time around, be ready to sit down, cast off and enjoy the ride.