Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 2, 2020)
Back in 2003, Curse of the Black Pearl opened the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with a bang. Though few expected much from a movie based on a theme park attraction, Curse became a massive hit that wound up as the third-biggest hit of its year.
2006’s Dead Man’s Chest fared even better, as it turned into that year’s highest-grossing film. It did so by a wide margin, as it topped second-place Night at the Museum by $173 million in the US.
Rather than wait another three years, Disney produced the third flick right away, as 2007’s At World’s End followed Chest by less than a year. Though the lowest-grossing of the three in the US, End did well internationally and concluded the trilogy on a positive financial note.
Except those profits tempted Disney to continue and not finish the franchise with its third iteration. While End wrapped up the tale of heroic leads Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), it left open room for more shenanigans with the series’ most popular character, flamboyant pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).
Thus 2011’s On Stranger Tides ditched Will and Elizabeth and fully embraced Captain Jack. While it continued the downward trend of US sales, it again more than compensated with international receipts.
Given those profits, it came as a surprise that it took six more years for another Pirates to emerge. Nonetheless, the fifth film came out in 2017 via Dead Men Tell No Tales, and it may finally offer the end of the franchise, as despite rumors, we have yet to hear of a sixth flick.
In earlier movies, Will Turner became attached to a curse that only allows him to set foot on dry land once every decade. As a 12-year-old, Will’s son Henry (Lewis McGowan) believes he can break this spell if he finds the Trident of Poseidon, but the elder Turner warns the boy not to pursue such folly.
Nine years later, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) serves in the Royal Navy, and when his ship enters the deadly Devil’s Triangle, he encounters ghost pirates led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). The aquatic specter seeks the destruction of all pirates, a group that includes our pal Captain Jack.
Only one object appears to offer Jack’s salvation: the Trident of Poseidon. Jack and Henry join forces to locate it, both with hopes to use it for their own ends.
Earlier I mentioned that Tales stands as the potential finale in the Pirates series, and that might stem from its lackluster reception. Not only did Tales receive the worst reviews of the series, but also it drew the weakest audience.
Granted, with a worldwide take of $794 million, Tales still managed to earn money. However, it came as a notable decline in revenue after the prior three movies, and given the enormous budgets of the Pirates flicks, Disney may feel reluctant to commit $200 million-plus for a franchise with diminishing returns.
Although the “Will and Elizabeth” trilogy worked pretty well for me, Tides failed to muster the same excitement. While not a bad movie, it lacked much real charm, so I wouldn’t have minded if it formally finished the franchise.
That said, I entered Tales with some sense of optimism, if just because it brought back Will and Elizabeth. As much as fans loved Captain Jack, the series fared better with him as a shared lead and not the whole enchilada, as happened in End.
Unfortunately, Will and Elizabeth play superficial roles in Tales, as the movie clearly hopes to pass the baton to a new generation. It seems likely the filmmakers hoped audiences would embrace Henry and they’d be able to pursue more movies with him at the fore.
As noted, this didn’t really seem to work, as Tales became the least successful of the franchise. If we do get a Pirates 6, I suspect Henry will fail to appear.
And I can’t bemoan that potential choice, as Henry turns into a wholly lackluster hero. Not that Will became terribly exciting, but Bloom feels like the Second Coming of Errol Flynn compared to the dull Thwaites.
As our replacement for Knightley, Kaya Scodelario fares a bit better, but not a whole lot. Because she shares little chemistry with Thwaites, they become a void at the center of the film.
Depp can’t overcome that issue, and his Captain Jack becomes less interesting with each new movie. So fresh and delightful in Curse, but Film Five, Depp leans toward self-parody and feels like he goes on cruise control via this one-dimensional performance.
It doesn’t help that Tales lacks a coherent narrative. My synopsis tidies up matters and hides the fact that the movie really presents a long, muddled series of action scenes linked only vaguely by the most tangential of plots.
Some of these sequences manage rudimentary excitement, but none of them come across as especially memorable. Because the film forms itself around the action, these set pieces seem a little desperate and without much vivacity or charm.
Every once in a while, we get a minor moment of entertainment or fun, but much of Tales feels perfunctory and by the numbers. Maybe Pirates 6 will reinvent the franchise and bring back some of its prior luster, but Tales continues the series on a tired note.
Footnote: a sequel-tempting tag scene appears after the conclusion of the end credits.