Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Men Tell No Tales

I love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies – they fascinate me.

They’re visually amazing, the music is awesome, and the characters are memorable. The stories are good and there’s enough historical accuracy to make the magic believable (hint to aspiring writers – get the mundane details right!).

They’re my favorite movies for inspiration to re-enchant the world. The Lord of the Rings trilogy are better films and much better stories, but nothing makes me feel like I can successfully navigate my way through a world that’s stacked against me than the Pirates movies.

And that’s because the Pirates movies offer simple but powerful guidance: “what would Jack do?” Gordon White of Rune Soup says Jack Sparrow (“Captain Jack Sparrow!”) is the best example of the Trickster since Bugs Bunny, and he’s right. Gordon calls the Pirates films “the best depictions of western magic ever committed to celluloid.

I love the characters (Will, Governor Swann, Norrington) who do the right thing even when it’s not the proper, legal thing. I love the inventiveness and resiliency – in the words of Captain Jack “the only rules that really matter are what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” I love the growth of Elizabeth Swann from damsel in distress to Pirate King. Her “hoist the colors” speech in At World’s End never fails to move me to tears.

And I love the magic, from the cursed pirates to Tia Dalma to the green flash. In the words of Captain Barbossa, “it’s not getting to the Land of the Dead that’s the problem. It’s getting back.”

They have their problems. The Curse of the Black Pearl is about 20 minutes too long – it drags in the final third. Cannibal Island in Dead Man’s Chest is ahistorical and uncomfortable to watch. The ten minutes of Jack in Davy Jones’ Locker in At World’s End is punishment for the audience, and does anybody really believe that Elizabeth Swann, Pirate King, would give it all up to be a stay-at-home mom?

Don’t get me started about On Stranger Tides. The concept was good, but the story was weak. And who was Angelica? Was she really Blackbeard’s daughter? A pirate? A distressing damsel? A conwoman who got caught up in her own con? Complicated characters are one thing – confusing writing is another.

But the problems are minor compared to the sheer pleasure of watching the movies. They’re on TV a lot, and I’ve seen them enough times that dropping in after they start or dropping out before they finish is no problem. And on those rare occasions when I’ve got a free evening to spend on the couch, they’re the first DVDs I reach for.

And that brings us to the fifth Pirates movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales. It’s been six years since On Stranger Tides, and the trailers looked promising, so I took off Friday afternoon to go see it.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 E

There’s a bit of formula to Dead Men Tell No Tales – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It opens like the first movie: a short scene with a child character, then a fast forward to nine years later. Jack Sparrow comes to town to pirate and ends up in jail awaiting execution. We have a young man of modest means (Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner – yes, that Turner) and a young, well-educated woman (Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth) who refuses to be constrained by the societal expectations for women. There are cursed pirates, hidden treasures, and maps that no man can read.

It’s the fifth movie in a series – you know what’s going to happen (mostly). The question is how. The answer is in usual Pirates fashion: with wild chases, double crosses, amazing ingenuity, and magic.

It works – mostly. Johnny Depp is being criticized in reviews for lazy acting, but at the beginning Jack Sparrow is down on his luck, and thus even more drunk than usual. Later on he has less to do than other characters, particularly the new ones. It’s being criticized for having too many subplots – I wonder if those reviewers watched the first four installments? There are a couple of points that appear to be at odds with the previous stories, but maybe not. Still, this is the shortest of the Pirates movies at 2:09 – there was plenty of time to tie up loose ends. Movies make it to DVD quickly these days – it will be interesting to see if there were any deleted scenes that might have made the story tighter.

pirates-5-carinaHere’s the bottom line: I enjoyed it. A lot. The formula worked – it felt like the original Curse of the Black Pearl. The old characters felt familiar, the new characters were likeable and believable, and the plot was entertaining. It didn’t have the intricate stories and socio-economic commentary of the second and third films, but it had an ending that was deeply satisfying.

I need to see it again a time or three before I start to dissect it for magical lessons and other subtleties. This was the first new Pirates movie in six years – I went into the theater to enjoy it, not to study it.

As with all the Pirates movies, stay till the credits are done. The final scene hints at a sixth movie, which may or may not be made – a lot depends on this weekend’s box office. Early returns are good, and word of mouth seems to be far better than the professional reviews.

If, like me, you love the Pirates movies, go. You’ll enjoy it. If you liked the first three but not the fourth, go. Dead Men Tell No Tales is far better than On Stranger Tides. If you think the first movie was awesome and you hated all the sequels, why are you even bothering to read this review?

But if you skip it, you’ll miss a fun 2 hours and 9 minutes.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.