Even in the more innocent blockbuster times of 2003 (the summer that brought us the second Fast and Furious movie instead of the eighth), Pirates of the Caribbean reeked of studio cynicism. A faded Disneyland attraction dressed up with Johnny Depp in eyeliner and dreads, it was a corporate product that didn’t even try to hide it. Yet somehow, when it arrived, that was kind of the appeal. A year after he made The Ring, Gore Verbinski brought us one of the most improbably charming big-budget movies in years, propelling Depp to an Oscar nomination after now-legendary stories of Disney executives nearly firing him when they saw the early footage. The whole enterprise was such a strange and cheerful lark that it was hard to resist.
The three sequels that have come since have tested my resolve. I’m still incredulous that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is nearly three hours long—and we won’t go into what happened when director Rob Marshall (Chicago) got the keys to the Black Pearl in 2011. But I hold onto a stubborn fondness for these movies. In our self-serious era of “cinematic universes” and 35-second Marvel logos, Disney spends hundreds of millions of dollars to turn a dorky theme-park ride into blissed-out, high-seas ghost stories, giving the series a cloak of Hollywood self-parody it wears proudly.
Which brings us to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth and perhaps least-anticipated of the series. Times have changed. In 2017, as Depp slurs his way through another turn as Captain Jack Sparrow and sneers at the movie’s latest young starlet (Kaya Scodelario), it’s hard not to feel a little queasy. Orlando Bloom, reprising the role that cemented him on preteen walls for a decade, looks unmistakably like he’d rather be anywhere else. The plot, thin even by franchise standards, involves some kind of magical staff in the middle of the ocean. The jokes are dutiful, the action creaky. Disney turned over the helm this time to two little-known Norwegian directors, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (best known in the United States for a pair of Marco Polo episodes), and their bland professionalism may make you long the days for when Marshall showed up and turned the whole thing into a Broadway musical. Even at a more merciful runtime of two hours, the film is often boring.
Still—and I may need an intervention here—I found Dead Men Tell No Tales to be passably fun and certainly no harder to watch than any of the better-pedigreed blockbusters this year. Javier Bardem, taking up a fine villain mantle previously worn by Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy, and Ian McShane, spits and shivers and has great fun as Salazar, the leader of yet another army of undead mariners. Rønning and Sandberg wisely lavish attention on the work of their crack visual-effects team, who animate every living corpse with loving detail. The movie’s other attractions are modest but plentiful: zombie sharks, a surprisingly funny cameo from Paul McCartney as a fellow pirate on death row (“If they disembowel you, ask for Victor!”), and the spectacular eyebrows on Brenton Thwaites, who joins the cast as Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s adult son. When the Black Pearl, Sparrow’s old ship, eventually roars into the movie like the second coming of the Millennium Falcon, the original’s demented energy briefly sails again. I may have gotten emotional.
But even I have to admit that there are moments when this franchise’s age become painfully clear. Dead Men Tell No Tales, inexplicably, even makes that literal. For most of the movie, Depp puts in an awfully tired performance, rarely registering the kooky beats that should be second nature by now. The only exception is a curious origin sequence that shows a young Jack Sparrow on one of his first adventures—with Depp digitally de-aged to look like he just walked off the set of the first season of 21 Jump Street. It’s fascinating for a moment, a spooky invocation of a sexy old ghost, but we’re soon returned to the present specimen, bleary-eyed and barely there.