Seeing a Pirates of the Caribbean movie these days is a lot like riding the amusement park attraction that inspired the franchise: it’s a generally enjoyable time and maybe, just maybe there will be a surprise along the way. Mostly, though, it’s the same as the last time you rode it.
Dead Men Tell No Tales — not to be confused with the similarly titled Dead Man’s Chest (aka Pirates 2) — picks up a thread teased at the end of At World’s End (Pirates 3): Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is attempting to free his father, Will (Orlando Bloom), from an eternity cursed to the Flying Dutchman. Legend has it that the Trident of Poseidon has the power to do just that, so off Henry goes. There’s nothing Disney loves more than daddy issues.
Along the way, Henry’s path crosses with accused witch (i.e. scientist) Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who fits the franchise’s female archetype of being clever and having a heaving bosom; Jack Sparrow’s peg-legged frenemy, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush); and a new villain, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), commendably committed to stealing scenes and ridding the seven seas of pirates. Captain Jack (Johnny Depp), of course, also factors in, along with flashbacks to his origin story. (What blockbuster can resist the chance to de-age its star via CGI?)
There’s a lot of business about the trident and a compass and unreadable maps and curses, but Dead Men Tell No Tales — as with other Pirates installments before it — might ultimately wind up feeling repetitive, the swashbuckling feeling like more of the same. There will be the inevitable sword fights and bad guys back from the dead, pratfalls and jokes about cannon “balls.” The thrills aren’t quite as thrilling; the punch lines don’t have as much punch. (Har har, guess what “horology” sounds like?)
Nevertheless, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Bandidas) do craft tentpole-worthy action sequences and plenty of moments — like a particularly clever bit involving a guillotine and another with zombie sharks — are honest-to-goodness fun. (Zombie sharks!) Paul McCartney pops up for a silly cameo — it’s nothing, but it’s cute seeing him onscreen — and the new recruits are welcome additions: Thwaites has great charisma and even greater eyebrows, while Scodelario is poised and perfectly Keira Knightley-y. (Knightley herself makes a dialogue-less cameo, but seems to not want much to do with this billion-dollar franchise.)
And then there is Depp, whose cartoonish portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow has become a caricature of a caricature, mincing and slurring through each scene, drunker and wearing thicker eyeliner than ever. At certain points, I found myself wondering, could a Pirates of the Caribbean movie work without Depp? (No, right?) But how long can he play this same character? I suppose I’m just aching to see some character development for Jack Sparrow, something lacking from the last five films. Who would he be if he stopped swigging rum and sobered up? Or if he changed locales and left the Caribbean? Toward the beginning, Dead Men Tell No Tales seems as if it will test who Captain Jack Sparrow is when he’s no longer the captain and simply Jack Sparrow, but then it doesn’t and he remains the same. Just like the mannequin on the ride.