Much has been made over the past few months about the fact that the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise is basically like flogging a dead (sea) horse now. At least in the eyes and words of critics, that has certainly been the case. While the first was a surprise hit, both commercially and critically, its three sequels have only managed the former.
The sequels and their script writers, sub plots and sub-standard storylines have came in for heavy criticism from film experts, and a lot of what’s been said is true.
But the box-office figures and response from the general cinemagoer has been remarkable. The first film took over $650m (just under £400m to us Brits), and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Films two and three – while not as critically acclaimed – took approximately $2bn between them. The fourth installment, On Stranger Tides, is still at cinemas, but has so far taken well over $900m, meaning the franchise could be close to a box-office total of $4bn by the time it’s done, and that’s with more films to come.
So, with critics everywhere panning it, what keeps the paying public coming back? I offer a few suggestions below…
It’s based on a ride
The films have become so huge worldwide that it’s easy to forget the whole thing was originally based on, or inspired by, a ride at Disneyland. It’s quite an achievement that it has managed to come this far, when others (Haunted Mansion, anyone?) have drastically failed.
While they may now be struggling for ideas, perhaps a downfall of being based on a theme-park ride, the franchise should be applauded for making a success of it at all. Indeed, such is the rise of the films that the ride now incorporates Jack Sparrow and other references to the movies.
It’s easy to suspect that much of the Pirate-y stuff going on has simply been made up on the spot, and some of it has – for example, there was no Pirate Code. However, much of it is not simply a fleet of fantasy, but has been well researched. For example, Davy Jones’ Locker dates back to the 1700s.
The ‘green flash’, which highlights the passing of a soul from this world to the next, may not do just that, but the flash itself is a real thing, with documented cases going back to the 17th century. Mermaids, the Flying Dutchman, Calypso and the Kraken are all also steeped in mythology.
It looks great
Okay, unless the film is Avatar, this may not be enough of a reason to go see it. But everything in this film looks just how it should. The pirates look exactly how you’d want good ol’ pirates to look, the ships are spectacular, and some of the CGI is truly wonderful.
Even the use of 3D in the latest film isn’t too bad, and as far as 3D is concerned, that’s something to celebrate. Some serious effort must have gone into it, especially with dozens of extras and the huge scale of everything, all with brilliant results.
They’re good fun
Ignore the confusing sub-plots and take the films at face value, and they can be enjoyed simply as a swashbuckling sail over the seven seas. There’s some great sword fights, truly outstanding moments of humour (both slapstick and some witty one-liners) and a general sense of adventure to the films. They’re good fun, and you get the feeling everyone involved is really enjoying themselves.
It’s just a shame they all seem to go on for that bit too long. Or 60 minutes too long in the case of At World’s End.
Great supporting cast
Ignoring the overthought romance of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, and the really annoying religious bloke in the last one, the rest of the cast on-board have been pretty good, and have done their best with what’s available to them.
Geoffrey Rush is the obvious target for praise here, and his scenes with Johnny Depp are usually amongst the best (the “what are you doing?”/”what arrrgggghhhh ya doin’” scene in At World’s End is probably the best in the film). Other notable mentions go to the likes of Kevin McNally (Gibbs) and a couple of great cameos from Keith Richards as Sparrow’s father.
Pintel and Ragetti
These could have been put in the above section, but I feel they are more than deserving of their own. They provide many of the many memorable moments in the first three films, and were horrendously omitted from the last (one of the biggest disappointments for me).
From the opening “’Ello Poppet” to a fork in the eye, dressing as women, throwing their name into the hat for captaincy of the ship and helping free Calypso, the not-so-dynamic-duo are two of the standout characters from the trilogy, with much more depth than their ‘good’ counterparts, Mullroy and Murtogg.
Last, but quite the opposite of being least, it is, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow himself. Even ignoring or disagreeing with everything above, the performance of Johnny Depp in each of the films cannot be questioned. He throws himself into the role, a lot of the time you feel like he is just improvising, and some of the time he actually is, and he carries the films for large parts by himself. Without Depp, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise really would be a sinking ship.
Many critics point to the fact he is merely impersonating Keith Richards, something Depp has somewhat confirmed. But he does a better Keith Richards than Keith Richards does. He staggers around like a drunk in the dark, perhaps something to do with his fondness for rum, and is “without doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of,” but at least we have heard of him. And as Lieutenant Groves points out, he has “got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.”
While the franchise owes a huge debt to Depp (though his fee for On Stranger Tides may have gone some way to repaying that), it could also be suggested Depp owes a lot to the franchise.
Fans of Tim Burton would know him from his superb performances in the likes of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow. Others may know him for his surreal performance in the equally surreal Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which was perhaps as close as any actor could get to portraying the events of the book on the big screen.
While these films and Depp’s performances were unquestionably brilliant, he had something of a cult following. With Pirates, Depp exploded into the Hollywood mainstream like a cannon fired out of the Black Pearl. The film took more at the box office than the four mentioned above combined.
It may be unfair to say it turned him into a leading man, as I believe he was already good enough, but it certainly showcased his talents to the world, and he is now one of cinema’s biggest stars. Depp may not need Pirates like it needs him, but perhaps this is why he keeps going back.
I cannot say the series is perfect. It’s far from it. But as I’ve explored above, I do feel there’s plenty there to show it has been a solid series, one that hasn’t taken itself too seriously, and has been a lot of fun to watch. Some of the criticism has been fair, but plenty hasn’t. It’s become a bit of an easy target for critics.
For the next Pirates movie, they need is a good script and Depp can do the rest. Then, perhaps, we’ll get back to the magic of the first film. Savvy?