I can’t remember if it was the summer of 2000 or 2002, but the first time I visited the most Magical Place on Earth was, as it is for most who venture there, a life changing experience. I was small enough for the promises of breakfasts with princesses and getting a high five from Mickey Mouse to really mean something. I rode all of the rides that I was tall enough to ride, dragging along the nearest, least troublesome adult with me. When it was all over, having experienced the thrill of the rides and the meals with princesses, I found myself preferring the rides. My favorites: the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.
I must have sung that tune the entire drive from Orlando to southern Illinois. Imagine my delight when, in the summer of 2003, I saw the first trailer. A swashbuckling action-adventure film helmed by director Gore Verbinski and infamous producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was something unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I dragged my parents to theaters opening weekend in May 2003. It began my love affair with Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley. I’d already become quite familiar with Orlando Bloom from his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy the summers before. I was wholly enthralled with the film. I was enthralled by the excitement and the mystery. Everything about the film struck me as perfect.
And, in many ways, it was. A commercial success and far and away everyone’s favorite, Curse of the Black Pearl was as good as a film based on an amusement park ride could ever really hope to be. It had all the elements of a fun fantastical action adventure: zombies, love triangles, witticism, and plenty of sword and cannon fighting. None of the following films in the Pirates franchise has ever held a candle to it.
I see the temptation to replicate the success that the first Pirates film attained. I see the temptation of a creative team at its literal wits’ end assuming that a repeat of that first plot with its own menu of witticisms, and how that formula seems as if it would build a successful film. I see that they’ve also forgotten the time-tested adage that the remake is never as good as the original. The same is true of Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales. From a contrived love story between two green nearly-children who are decidedly not Jack Sparrow, the character that all spectators objectively care most about. The villain is an undead seaman with a personal vendetta against the Sparrow for something he did in a past that seems bizarrely distant, just as it had when Barbossa came after him in the first film.
Much of the film’s appeal, according to the showrunners themselves, lay with the fact that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were returning to reprise their roles as Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Neither actor reprised the roles in the 2011 installment Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. However, in practice, the appearance of the two primary characters of the franchise was downright laughable. A delay of six years between the fourth film and the fifth one, and collectively Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann garnered a grand total of ninety seconds of screen time.
The film has been further marred by a string of controversies and scandals involving star Johnny Depp. During early filming in 2015, Depp and his wife Amber Heard were fined by Australian authorities for illegally importing their pet dogs. Months later, the two went through a very public divorce involving allegations of domestic violence and physical and psychological abuse. These scandals somehow have not brought understanding to producers at Disney that perhaps this cash cow franchise is more difficult than it is worth.
As painful as it may be for fans of Johnny Depp and the world that Gore Verbinski built in his original trilogy to admit, the magic of Pirates has died. The world that we knew and loved, the atmosphere of black humor and cheeky adventure, sank with the Endeavor at the end of At World’s End in 2007. The trilogy ended ten years ago. To be quite frank, it is an insult to the understated brilliance and wit of the films to continue to drag these characters through storylines that are not authentic to the story in which they were devised.
I remember sitting in the theater at the end of At World’s End. It was nigh on three in the morning because I’d dragged my father out to the midnight showing at a local movie house. I held my face in my hands and cried. Everything had been tied up. There were threads left that I had hoped would be explored, but I was at peace with the fact that my imagination would have to be enough. Everything about the film felt like a dramatic conclusion, and that’s what it should have been left to be.
Dead men tell no tales, so let them lie.