By Kim Hughes
It cost a moon landing and looks it. It thoroughly engages the imagination and has palpable heart, thanks to button-cute series newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario plus the Norwegian filmmaking duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg who cast member Geoffrey Rush says brought "a kind of Euro sensibility to traditional Hollywood franchise thinking."
And yet something fundamental is missing from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the starry fifth instalment of Disney’s fantastical swashbuckler series based, lest you forget, on a theme park ride.
That missing something is a committed Johnny Depp. He’s here in body. But his spirit – or rather, the capricious, cheeky spirit of his Captain Jack Sparrow upon whose axis the entire franchise spins – has been replaced by a rickety caricature of old school comic Foster Brooks. (Google it, kids.) You know you’ve got trouble when a capuchin monkey wearing clothes handily upstages your movie’s pricey lead. But it must be said: Depp is phoning it in and you can feel it.
Which is too bad, because Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is very entertaining, checking all the summer blockbuster boxes while managing to at once grow the franchise’s by-now-labyrinthian storyline while adding some cool new twists.
To wit: Ghostly Captain Armando Salazar and his literally rotting Spanish Navy crew have escaped from the Devil's Triangle and are determined to kill every pirate at sea. Top of the list: Salazar’s archenemy Captain Jack Sparrow who brought ghastly misfortune on our man, played with dependable menace by Javier Bardem.
Sparrow, newly aided by persecuted astronomer and horologist Carina, must seek the Trident of Poseidon, an elusive and possibly mythical artefact that confers total control over the seas.
Simultaneously, Henry Turner - son of his former crew member Will Turner and dishy Elizabeth Swann –also seeks the Trident of Poseidon to free his father from a dreaded curse. Multiple subplots (including a rather clever one involving Rush’s Captain Hector Barbossa) help propel the narrative arc but the thrill is in the effects.
Filmmakers Rønning and Sandberg have a blast with the undead theme, leveraging it to make putrefied sailors and decayed sharks run amok. Comic wordplay also factors in (see the beforementioned horologist, n’yuck n’yuck, pronounced just like… well you get it). And there’s the requisite knock-kneed romance via Henry and Carina (played by Thwaites and Scodelario).
It’s exhilarating, every bit of it, until the once-great, now depressingly bad Depp steps into the frame, slowing the action with maddeningly predictable pratfalls and faux-drunken slurs.
But really, you ask: can one actor really bring down an otherwise fun, fast-paced and thrillingly choreographed blockbuster like Pirates of the Caribbean despite its strong ensemble cast? Answer: yes. Whether to be angry or heartbroken about this development is the audience’s prerogative. But one thing is clear: if Pirates goes to a sixth instalment, someone better be ready to kick ass or clean house.
An entertainment/lifestyle writer and editor of an exquisite vintage, Kim has written about film, music, books, food, wine, cosmetics and cars for the Toronto Star, NOW Magazine, Report on Business, Amazon.com, hmv, Salon, Elevate, CBC, Spafax and many other marquee properties. She lives in Toronto and is a proud volunteer with Annex Cat Rescue.