One of the most iconic and highest-grossing film franchises of all time is none other than the Pirates of the Caribbean films. 5 films (at time of writing) follow Captain Jack Sparrow, immortalized by the ever-controversial Johnny Depp, on a series of swashbuckling, action-packed adventures over almost 15 years between the releases of The Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Men Tell No Tales (or Salazar’s Revenge, depending on where you live). The franchise has grossed some 4-and-a-half billion dollars over 5 films and been nominated for Oscars along the way. The first three films were directed by Gore Verbinski, which were followed by the fourth and fifth being directed by Rob Marshall and the pair of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg respectively. The films also features a wide variety of other franchise mainstays such as Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth Swann, Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Kevin McNally as Gibbs, Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, Naomie Harris as Tia Dalma, Tom Hollander as Cutler Beckett, and many others. The idea for the films was based on the Disney theme park ride of the same name.
I was very excited about Disney + Hotstar dropping in India for a lot of reasons. Nearly chief among them was the Pirates franchise. I’ve just finished a marathon of all five films, so these memories are fresh.
I absolutely love POTC. For me, this is one of the most consistently fun, funny, and engaging film franchises out there, which is why some people’s perceptions of it don’t make much sense to me. I’ve heard a million people echo the same sentiment: they talk of the first film as though it’s some kind of Holy Grail, like it changed the meaning of the term ‘inspired by’ in a filmmaking context (which I suppose it did) , but then proceed to trash the remaining 4 as though they suddenly went in some crazy other direction. The first film is undeniably incredible, on a lot of levels. Honestly, to incept something so full of character and style from literally nothing but a theme park ride is something special. Looking back, it actually did play a huge role in shaping the visual tone of the first three films, a potent and distinctive element which the fourth and fifth films were foolish to try to stray away from however much they might’ve. Still, there were no stories nor characters in the source material, so to combine that visual style with such a brilliantly engaging storyline and arguably the strongest character base of any film was the happiest marriage anyone could’ve asked for.
We mustn’t skimp on praise for the great Johnny Depp, who seemingly single-handedly created one of the best characters ever, and added to it with one of the best and most recognizable performances ever, leading to an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the first film, a feat comic-book movies have yet to achieve (not counting, of course, the single greatest performance of all time). If there’s any disadvantage to Depp’s brilliance, however, it would only be that no one talks about the quality of some of the other characters and performances in the films. Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa is a savage delight to watch on screen. Any other actor and that character would’ve fallen flat, any other movie and Rush would’ve fallen flat, but somehow Captain Barbossa shines with charisma and charm. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are pretty great characters too, it’s a very easy love story to commit to and their on-screen chemistry is great (and for a little more romantic tension, they throw Jack in there to pretty hilariously compelling effect in the second and third movies). Even Davy Jones deserves a mention. A gaping flaw in the third film is his interactions with Calypso, is feels a little awkward when you actually see it, but Nighy does a slightly improbably good job considering how much of his face he has to work with as an actor to convey the deep, deep pain of that character. A lot of that credit also goes to some shockingly good music, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
I stand resolutely behind the second and third films. The second film is very nearly as good as the first. The third is maybe a little too long with a little too much content squeezed into its runtime. If you’re not paying pretty close attention to the third film then you’re liable to miss stuff, which I suppose isn’t the deftest of approaches to a pure escapist film. That said, it’s still wildly entertaining (although maybe a little trippy in parts). The fourth film gets way too much hate. Yes, one misses Elizabeth and Will, and it definitely drags in parts, but damned if it doesn’t have as much classic Jack Sparrow as the rest of them. The mermaid and the missionary’s romantic angle was weak, no one’s disputing that, but Penelope Cruz is pretty good as Angelica, and her and Jack’s dynamic is entertaining. I grant you that there’s something qualitatively inferior compared to the first three, which I put to the change in director, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation would have you believe. The fifth one is a little more problematic, in two key ways. The first problem is the visual tone: it doesn’t feel like a Pirates movie. It doesn’t have the same slimy, grittiness that gave the first three films their character, which is another reason why Verbinski seems to be the only director who knows how to make these movies. The second issue, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, was Johnny Depp. It felt a little bit, just a little, like he forgot how to play Jack. He was always drunk, but there was always an obvious intelligence to him, some semblance of method to the madness. It wasn’t a constant issue, there were moments that were exactly as good as they ever were, but about a third to half the time was spent a little more drunk and oddly higher pitched than Jack usually is. Aside from that, the rest of it was still pretty good. It was nice for them to rope the Turners back into it, the new cast was good, and the rest of the film played out more or less as a Pirates movie would. A dip to be sure, a significant one, but not as far as some reactions to it would lead you to believe and still fun.
I do just want to touch briefly on the music throughout the franchise, because my God is it good. Aside from the theme song, which is one of the best out there, there’s a lot of really incredible and oddly communicative soundtrack to these movies, particularly the second and third. Whether it be pulsating tracks to lay out the pace of an action set-piece (of which there are many), or equally grand and emotional pieces, like those that play a pretty massive role in characterizing Davy Jones or Will and Elizabeth’s relationship, POTC is an extremely musical franchise, and element that they do exceedingly well.
Yeah, this is an amazing franchise. The first three films, at the very least, are just bursting with style and fun, and I don’t get the feeling that they’ve remained in the zeitgeist the way they deserve to. There are whisperings of a 6th film. I really hope those are true; they teased a return for Davy Jones in the post-credits of the last film which would be fun to see. Original? No, but fun. That’s the thing with these movies; with the exception of the first, it’s a fairly transparent formula. But I’d argue there’s nothing wrong with a formula, as long as it works. These films aren’t higher cinema, they’re meant for a good time, and I defy you to find a better one. Honestly, Captain Jack is one of my favourite characters of all time. Put him in front of a brick wall and I’d watch it, he’d probably make it entertaining too. If they make a 6th, I’ll be the first in line at the theatre; in the meantime, I cannot recommend a POTC marathon strongly enough, especially under the current lockdown, where we’ve got nothing but time and options. This is one of the best.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 85/100 Aryamaan’s Score –