Review: Johnny Depp is Back as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Walt Disney Studios)

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Walt Disney Studios)

Whatever the merits of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the entire existence of the popular Jack Sparrow franchise is remarkable and and of itself. The series is based off a theme park ride, it revived the swashbuckling genre that had been dead for decades, and it placed at its center a character who is pure comic relief, relegating the conventional heroic characters of the story (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley then, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario now) to supporting parts. Everything about the franchise is improbable, which gives even the weakest films in the series a sympathetic sheen. This isn’t the stuff that makes a billion dollars worldwide, and yet somehow these films do. A movie series heavy on special effects with a budget of several hundred million dollars shouldn’t be this ragtag and just plain weird, and yet this is the hallmark of each Pirates of the Caribbean film.

For the fifth time, Johnny Depp returns to the role of Jack Sparrow, which turned the poster-boy for ‘90s art-house cinema into one of the world’s most reliable movie stars and even earned him an Oscar nomination. The thrill of seeing Jack Sparrow perform his shtick again might not have the novelty that it once had, but it almost feels like a relief to see Depp return to this amiable sort of mugging, since it does retain most of its charm. Risks are not what Depp needs in his career at the moment; regaining the public’s affection by returning to what has worked before is the clearly superior option, and it still works.

But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is not quite about Sparrow at all, but the next generation of pirates who will carry on the franchise. Brenton Thwaites plays Henry, the adult son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (the original ingenues of the series, Bloom and Knightley), who wishes to find Poseidon’s Trident in order to lift the curse that keeps his father underneath the sea. A movie that features ghost sharks and mythological creatures requires its share of suspension of disbelief, but having audiences believe that Knightley and Thwaites, born four years apart, are mother and son is a bit too much even for this series. Otherwise, Thwaites is nearly perfect casting as Bloom’s son. Both are comfortable in old-fashioned fantasy and make great foils for bigger personalities. As his love interest, Kaya Scodelario also makes an effective successor to Knightley. She has much of Knightley’s wit and intensity, and it’s not hard to believe that, like Knightley in films such as Pride & Prejudice and The Imitation Game, Scodelario is capable of more than playing a likable action heroine.

The plot of nearly every Pirates of the Caribbean film is mostly inconsequential, since the films exist to mix up CGI action set pieces with Johnny Depp clowning around and the plot is merely a means to establish that, but this one finds Jack Sparrow as the target of the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, neck-and-neck with Christoph Waltz as Hollywood’s favorite villain). Geoffrey Rush once again returns as Captain Barbossa, who was once the villain but now exists more as a frenemy to Jack Sparrow, and it is he who gets to do most of the heavy emotional work based on unexpected connections to the other characters.

There are few moments in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales that will surprise audiences, but the film maintains the amiable tone of the previous films and is occasionally moving. For a behemoth franchise from Disney, Hollywood’s current undisputed titan of them, this series still maintains the spirit of a scrappy underdog, despite the billions in box office revenue. Even if there might not be all that much new about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales to amaze audiences, they can still appreciate the fact that this improbable series exists at all.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Walt Disney Studios
Now in theaters

3 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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