If you can even remember the year 2003, I’m guessing one thing you remember is that it’s the year Disney released a film based on a theme-park ride.
That film is significant mostly due to the absolute absurdity of its confidence. It had a summer-blockbuster release date, a ridiculously long name for the first installment in a franchise, a director fresh off The Ring, Orlando Bloom fresh off the second Lord of the Rings movie, and that elevator pitch, “It’s a movie based on a theme-park ride.” More specifically, based on a boat ride through the unsettling world of animatronic pirates, built in California’s Disneyland in 1967, then replicated in Florida’s Walt Disney World in 1973, Tokyo’s Disneyland in 1983, and Paris’ Disneyland in 1992.
Nevertheless, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was almost universally praised, with special compliments for the score, the signature Disney magic in the production design, and for Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, a character who felt like a throwback to the era of musical comedy and hammy pratfalls. Most importantly, Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times posed the question in his review, “Can a movie maintain the dramatic integrity of a theme-park ride?” and then he answered himself: “Sure.” As someone who was 10 years old at the time, I’ll submit my own answer to that question: “Oh, heck yes.”
Four movies later, we have arrived at the point where Johnny Depp is no longer an actor anybody wants to compliment, and where people barely remember Orlando Bloom is a person, and where the Pirates franchise has been turned over to two virtually unknown directors. Everything in the world has changed, except, of course, the oldest and most disturbing robot-men who still reside at various Disney theme parks around the world — their fake leg hair, their glassy eyes, their elbows crooked to hold bottles of rum. They’re still there, singing “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me,” chasing gold around an endless track, and lobbing fake cannonballs at 4-year-olds.
Does Dead Men Tell No Tales still capture that theme-park magic, or has it lost its way? I went to see it, in Times Square, to find out. For you.
Note: This is not a film review. I’m only going to answer one question — the one posed in my headline — and if it’s not a question you care about then I suggest moving along.
SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE MOVIE AHEAD.
For starters, I was supposed to have a friend with me at this screening of Dead Men Tell No Tales, much like one might take a friend to Disney World. But then she decided she was going to the gym instead. Not Disney magic.
However, there were children in my press screening, and some of them were in pirate costumes. In front of me, two teen boys scolded their mother for not turning off her phone, even as she was in the process of turning off her phone. She hissed, “Geez!” Disney magic.
The run-time of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is two hours and 33 minutes. The run-time of the Disney World Pirates of the Caribbean ride is eight minutes and 30 seconds. Not Disney magic.
The film opens with a young boy sitting in a dark room, looking at his favorite poster, which is titled “Father’s Curse.” Already I’m a little worked up, thinking “My God, this childhood will produce a strange adult.” Not Disney magic.
The young boy finds his dad, Orlando Bloom. If you can recall Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), you know Bloom has been cursed to work on The Flying Dutchman, an enchanted boat that turns everyone on it into a weird hybrid squid-person. He looks absolutely nuts. He tells the young boy, “You will never figure out how to break my curse. Love you, though.” The scene is excruciatingly boring until he says “Stop acting like—” and the kid goes…
“A pirate?” Disney magic.
This movie has a lot of fog, which is something I remember from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. Disney magic.
Nine years later, the boy, named Henry (played by The Giver’s Brenton Thwaites), is pissing off everyone on the British naval ship he works on. They’re about to sail directly into a boat covered in zombie pirates, and he doesn’t think they should. That’s treason! Also, it’s scary. Not Disney magic.
Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is the leader of the zombie pirates, and he is revolting to behold. When he talks, a melted black-licorice substance oozes out from between his teeth. Also, the back of his head is missing. Someone says “What are you?” And he says, “Death.” Bardem has been nominated for two Academy Awards, and won one of them. Disney magic.
Salazar kills everyone except Henry, because “dead men tell no tales,” and he needs to leave someone alive who can tell Jack Sparrow that he hates him. This is when we see the title card for the film, which reads Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I am a sucker for the moment in a movie where someone says the title of the movie, and this scene does it twice. Disney magic.
The other thing you need to know about Licorice-Mouth is that everyone calls him “El Matador del Mar,” and they translate it as “The Butcher of the Sea,” which is maybe technically accurate if you go back to the roots of the word, but is going to confuse everyone who’s familiar with matadors as bullfighters. Walt Disney World, by contrast, is famously attentive to detail. Not Disney magic.
The next few minutes of this movie take place on the island of St. Martin, where Henry has been taken to the hospital, even though he’s going to be hanged for treason. The set looks identical to the vaguely Spanish Colonial-themed section of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Disney magic.
Also on the island, we meet a young woman named Carina (The Maze Runner’s Kaya Scodelario) whom everyone hates because she’s a scientist, which the government mistranslates as “a witch.” She is trying to buy some kind of astronomy device, but failing because everyone’s sexist. Not Disney magic.
Next we meet Johnny Depp, as Jack Sparrow, hanging out inside a bank vault he accidentally locked himself into. Setting aside what you may feel about him, Depp’s voice and likeness were incorporated into the Disney World ride in 2006. This can’t be helped. Disney magic.
He is drunker than ever before. Not Disney magic.
There is a bonkers chase scene in which the entire bank gets dragged around the island by some horses, in incredible defiance of physics. Repeatedly, Jack nearly gets killed or arrested, but does not. As with most Disney theme-park rides, this pointless but exhilarating scene involved many moving pieces and seems to have cost a lot of money. Disney magic.
By the end, the whole town is destroyed. The bank vault Jack was trying to rob is empty, prompting his first mate, Mr. Gibbs, to rage-quit with the extremely melodramatic line “We’ve reached the end of our horizon.” There is no mass destruction or emotional turmoil in Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Not Disney magic.
Carina and Henry meet in the hospital and instantly become allies, bonding over the fact that they both want to find the magical trident of Poseidon. For him, it’s a matter of breaking Father’s Curse. For her, it’s a matter of proving she’s a great scientist. She explains that the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei was secretly obsessed with a star map to the trident, and her absentee father left her a magical diary that will help her decipher “the map no man can read.” Disney magic.
She reasons that she will be able to read the map because “luckily” she is not a man — she is a woman. This line also appears in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and the third episode of the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Not Disney magic.
Jack Sparrow trades his magic compass for some booze, then gets arrested. There is no police presence inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney World. Not Disney magic.
For whatever reason, Jack trading away his compass frees the zombies, who all have the same melting-licorice mouth and generally are just super-gross. When they start running around, it becomes apparent that they are actually ghosts — many of them don’t have legs, but they can still move quite quickly when they want to do a murder. Disney magic.
They also have ghost-birds, and a ghost-boat which can turn itself into a mouth and eat other boats, so they commence doing this to anyone and everyone out of spite. This is primarily so that other characters can say things like “Death has taken over the sea” every few minutes. Disney magic.
Henry (who wriggled out of his handcuffs earlier) locates Jack in jail and finds his drunken-idiot routine less than charming. He asks “Do you even have a ship? A crew? Pants?” Depp’s pants-less body is not, in my opinion, appropriate for a theme-park ride. Not Disney magic.
Still in jail, the pair meet Paul McCartney, who plays Jack’s uncle, also named Jack. He has a 20-second speaking role. Thank god I will be dead before Harry Styles gets to this point in his career. Not Disney magic.
A blood moon rises, making Carina’s magic diary glow, and it gives her a clue: “To command the power of the seas, all must divide.” Okay, sure. Disney magic.
Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who you may remember used to be a ghost pirate, in previous installments of the one and only film franchise based on a theme-park ride, is now a normal pirate. He has a sick manicure and is hanging out on a fancy boat, eating tiny bits of bright pink food with a pair of tweezers. His sidekicks have been recast. They’re like “the ghost boat is going to come eat us, what’s your idea?” Converging storylines = Disney magic.
In case you forgot, the British Empire is also involved in this movie. They hated Carina for being a witch, but they still have their own bald witch with lots of red-ink tattoos. Barbossa bribes someone so he can talk to her and she tells him, “The price for passing my door is blood.” This is foreshadowing. Disney magic.
She throws a rat in the fire and suggests that Barbossa just retire. If he’s not on a boat, his boat can’t get eaten by a boat-eating boat. Interesting idea, but he hates it. There’s nothing more gratifying and magical than keeping your hands and arms inside the boat at all times, as we learned from the safety guidelines at Disney’s best boat-themed attraction. Disney magic.
Barbossa takes Jack’s magic compass from the witch and says, “Time to make a deal with the dead.” I don’t feel like the witch did much here, but she looks cool. Walt Disney World has plenty of non-functional scene dressing, and that’s part of the experience. Disney magic.
Henry rescues Jack from a guillotine and Carina from being hung. Nice. Team up, let’s go. They all escape on a boat that, for some reason, needs to be driven into the sea on a set of wooden tracks. It’s a subtle but obvious reference to the tracks that move boats through the Magic Kingdom’s thrilling pirate ride. Disney magic.
It’s not obvious why Henry and Carina are prisoners, or why everyone is being so mean to each other. They all have different goals here, but none of them are in conflict. Much like a trip to a theme park, this could have been a nice little group outing, but everyone is insisting on bickering. Disney magic.
I don’t know if I’ve made it 100 percent clear yet, but the ghost boat literally turns into a gaping mouth with spiky wooden teeth when it approaches other boats. Anyway, the boat-mouth comes for Barbossa, and his big idea is to wait until he’s about to die and then say “Oh, are you lookin’ for Jack?” Licorice-Mouth is like “Yeah, babe, find him and I won’t kill you. We’re on the ocean. You have one day.” Disney magic.
Carina drew her star-map on the prison wall earlier. The “no man can read it” rule still applies, but the witch the British don’t kill for some reason is brought in to say, “Yes, this is the star map.” Nobody knows why this conversation is happening! Not Disney magic.
Meanwhile, Carina is bragging about how well she understands the star map. My calculations are precise and true,” she explains. Math is boring. Not Disney magic.
Jack teases Henry about having a crush on Carina. This makes no sense, considering that Henry and Carina have barely interacted. Personally, I’m busy wondering why there hasn’t been a good pub scene yet, with loud music and colorful bit characters. That is a key element in a theme-park ride I’ve been on two or three dozen times. Not Disney magic.
Finally, we get a flashback with voiceover narration, telling the story of Captain Salazar’s former life as a Spanish navy commander. He killed the captain of young Jack Sparrow’s pirate crew, so Jack did some crazy maneuvering to force Salazar to sink his ship in the haunted “Devil’s Triangle.” That made him a ghost. Also, his boat exploded in flames. It’s not explained how sinking into water would make something made out of wood explode into flames, but booming expository narration and an unnerving computer-generated teen Jack Sparrow are definitely in keeping with the spirit of modern Disney World. Disney magic.
As this little interlude wraps up, Barbossa and Salazar stumble upon Jack and friends — in the middle of the ocean. Small world! Disney magic.
Jack, Carina, and Henry run away in a rowboat, so Salazar sends the ghost-ship mascots out to bring them back. They are...
Oh hell yeah, Imagineers. The ghost sharks can fly, eat wood, kill people, and look awesome. One of them has a human tongue, because Disney imposes no limits on imagination. That’s kind of their thing. The ghost sharks rule. The other ghosts, we now learn, can run on top of water. Some of them have no arms or head-tops. It’s amazing, but not as amazing as the ghost sharks. None of these things occur in the Disney World ride, but thematically, I think we can agree, the surprise reveal of ghost sharks is… Disney magic.
One thing the ghosts can’t run on is land, so Jack, Carina, Henry, and Barbossa (who has decided to betray Licorice-Mouth) just stand on an island and talk about what to do next. They’re going to have to “race the dead” to get to the trident and break all the curses. You must know what’s coming…
It’s the fastest ship known to man. It’s the only ship everyone talks about constantly. It’s the name of the first movie in the first multi-film franchise based on a theme-park attraction. It is in Shrinky-Dink form in a glass bottle in Jack’s pocket. It’s The Black Pearl. Disney magic.
Barbossa stabs Jack in the pocket with a sword and The Black Pearl springs up like one of those shrink-wrapped washcloths. Disney magic.
Henry takes this opportunity to turn to Carina and say something to the effect of, “Hey, still think science is real?” Rude. Not Disney magic.
Carina, a woman, steers the ship. This is a real step up from the first movie, in which Keira Knightley’s character wasn’t even supposed to be on the ship at all due to the fact that she was a woman. In 1997, the Pirates of the Caribbean rides at Disney World and Disneyland were significantly revised to make them less sexist. Disney magic.
Carina takes out her diary, and Barbossa thinks, “Oh crap, I gave that diary to my daughter when I abandoned her… You are my daughter.” To be honest, this is the point where the movie jumps the shark a little bit. No offense intended to the ghost sharks, who rule. Not Disney magic.
Carina steers them to an island covered in rhinestones and declares it “a perfect reflection of the heavens.” The whole island is a map of the stars, which is nice to look at, even if it makes no sense at all. Disney magic.
The ruby from the cover of Carina’s diary is exactly the size and shape of the only missing star in the island-sized map. She puts the ruby in its place and says “The missing star. For my father,” to which Barbossa replies, “Yes, do it for him.” Shut up. Not Disney magic.
A big ol’ crack appears in the ocean, and suddenly everyone is in the underwater tomb of Poseidon. Disney magic.
Henry, who was previously kidnapped by the ghost pirates but I forgot about that part, is now going to be part of a plan. Salazar takes over his body, using a magical power that had not been previously established. Another ghost-pirate says “Are you sure? You’ll be trapped in his body forever.” Probably not, since Henry and Carina will likely have a Pirates spin-off series. It’s simply smart synergy for all the Pirates of the Caribbean theme-park rides of the world. Disney magic.
The new, slimy version of Henry tries to kill everyone, and things look bleak. Not Disney magic.
Carina mutters, “To command the power of the sea, all must divide,” somehow deducing that if she destroys the trident, it will break every ocean-related curse in the world. Disney magic.
She does it! Disney magic.
The crack in the ocean starts to close, with all of our beloved characters still inside. Not Disney magic.
Climbing up the Black Pearl’s anchor to safety, Carina notices that Barbossa has an arm tattoo of the star map, and pauses to ask “Who am I to you?” He replies, “Treasure.” This makes everyone in the theater laugh, including the children. Not Disney magic.
Barbossa jumps off the anchor to stab Licorice-Mouth (who is no longer a ghost, but somehow not dead either) and they both fall into the ocean. Everyone, including a small monkey, is really sad that Barbossa is dead. Okay, here is your one reminder that Barbossa menaced Henry’s mom in a sexual way in the first movie. Not Disney magic.
Carina is sad too, so she and Henry make out lightly in deference to her mourning. They’re in love now, and amped up because Henry broke Father’s Curse. Now he can finally take down that creepy poster. Disney magic.
Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley (she’s in this movie too!) are reunited, and they make out hard. It is PG, though. Disney magic.
Jack Sparrow leaves all of his new pals and sails away on The Black Pearl. In the end, it’s a pirate’s life for him. Disney magic.
I’m sorry that I didn’t stay for the big post-credits scene, but it’s my job to watch movies, not poorly disguised commercials for future movies. In any case, loosely inspired by the Disney ride, which empties out into a gift shop, my showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales emptied out into a Dave & Busters. Disney magic.
Disney magic: 35
Not Disney magic: 21
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, while now a joke, is still a fascinating example of a very specific type of movie — the type that blends the most cynical elements of the film industry with the kind of unhinged optimism you only experience during an acid trip. Is basing a film series on a theme-park ride the surest bet in capitalism, or the stupidest, weirdest idea of all time? It turned out to be the former, but could just have easily been the latter. Disney put 50-year-old robot men with eye patches in one end of a sausage grinder, and pulled CGI ghost sharks out the other. It made such a bad movie — an overlong, tortured mess that pairs a played-out main character with every story trope and special effect the mind can fathom.
But does Dead Men Tell No Tales capture the magic of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride?
Yeah. You know? Sure.