A rumour emerged last week that Disney were planning to put a 6th Pirates of the Caribbean movie into production and the general response was one of ‘Why?’ While Dead Men Tell No Tales made a decent amount of money, its grosses were a noticeable downturn from those of its predecessors. Reviews weren’t any better, with its aggregate scores on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes giving the franchise its lowest ever results.
Dead Men Tell No Tales made just under $795m worldwide. That’s nothing to sneeze at but it’s also the second lowest overall gross the franchise has ever seen. In North America, the box office totals were only $172m, the lowest of all five films. Officially, the budget for the film was $230m, the 3rd lowest for the franchise, but that doesn’t line up with multiple reports that suggest its budget ballooned into the region of $320m. That would make it one of the most expensive films ever made, beaten out only by Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Add to that the multiple issues on-set of lateness and other behaviour blamed on star Johnny Depp, as well as domestic abuse and workplace violence accusations, and one wouldn’t have blamed Disney if they’d decided to tap out of making these films. After all, they have Marvel and Star Wars now, not to mention the plentiful bounty the recent Fox acquisition will bring. Why put all your eggs in the basket of the Black Pearl, especially as audiences’ attentions start to dwindle?
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, an adaptation of a theme park ride revived Disney’s fortunes and put them on the path to blockbuster success. A risky investment coupled with genre savvy, an unexpectedly genius lead performance and refusal to stick to corporate branding created a Summer movie for the ages, and audiences gobbled it up.
As a new century rolled around, Disney found themselves at a crossroads. Their animation renaissance had birthed a new age of classic movies, with the corporate synergy and merchandising opportunities to match. The studio birthed new princesses, from which they could milk decades of branding, but they’d also diverged from their iconic formula to try new things: They put a new spin on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and gave Disney arguably its most adult villain; Hercules wasn’t the satire its directors intended but the abstract Gerald Scarfe inspired animation broke new ground at the studio; Mulan helped them break into the much coveted Chinese market they’d been exiled from for so long and they did so with a new breed of heroine; and Tarzan was an underrated technical marvel. The problem was that by the time 2000 rolled along, they knew they couldn’t keep up the typical Disney formula for too long. Audiences were already tiring of the musical format, 3D animation had broken through with major success at Pixar, and some dude named Michael Bay was making all the money. They needed to move forward.
Animation-wise, this led to what can charitably called mixed results. For every Lilo and Stitch, which embraced cultural diversity and a decidedly un-princessy narrative, there was a Home on the Range, interesting to look at but not much else. Some stories had great potential but failed in execution, while others, like Treasure Planet, were so expensive that the studio essentially wrote them off before release. The shift into 3D proved unexciting thanks to drivel like Chicken Little that felt like Pixar knock-offs. The studio seemed ill-prepared for the blockbuster era, in part because CEO Michael Eisner had been burned badly from the seeming disappointment of Pearl Harbour. Disney made family films, so the logic goes, and a big-budget blockbuster that could, gasp, earn a PG-13 rating was not the way to go.
As with many things that involve explosions in movies, the idea for Pirates of the Caribbean came partly from Jerry Bruckheimer. He, along with Don Simpson, had remoulded the Summer blockbuster from the 1980s onwards, glorying in excess, unbridled masculinity and whatever the hell Michael Bay is up to at any given time. The potential in a story of Pirates of the Caribbean was evident to him in all the ways that made Michael Eisner freak out: Pirate movies hadn’t been a big thing since the 1950s but that left an open goal for a studio to make something fresh; it would be based on a theme park ride that didn’t have a proper story but that only meant they could expand on a classic IP and make a whole world from it; this would cost a lot of money but that was necessary, Bruckheimer argued, because Disney’s competition was spending $100m a go on franchises like The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and of course, Harry Potter.
For a while, Eisner did everything he could to try and stop the film, and almost shut down production when another adaptation of a theme park attraction, The Country Bears, flopped disastrously. And yes, that is a real movie. It’s basically Almost Famous crossed with Blues Brothers but with giant animatronic bears and the villain is played by Christopher Walken. Can’t imagine why that flopped. And indeed, every theme park adaptation following on from Pirates has also flopped. So, why did this movie break the mould?
First of all, it’s essentially an adaptation in name only. The ride itself is a cute and kitschy tale of roguish pirates that’s just sanitized enough (they removed the literal sex slave auction scene last year), but it doesn’t have an overriding narrative. The whole point of the story is that you, the spectator, watch these assorted vignettes of characters and ideas and put together your own story. The options are limitless if you use your imagination and that was Disney’s overriding ethos. Well, that and it encourages people to ride again and again. Turning that into a film requires picking one narrative and setting it in stone, but the ride itself also doesn’t have any characters to build on. That ended up being a blessing because it gave them freedom to create a whole new brandable cast for adventures many.
Bruckheimer and his screenwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who helped to write Aladdin), were savvy enough to add the supernatural element too, which is absent from the ride. Accusations of ripping off Monkey Island followed, although it may just be mutually beneficial back slapping since that game took plenty from the original ride.
But it would be foolish to talk of the genius of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl without mentioning Jack Sparrow himself. The part was written as a more traditional pirate rogue trope with heavy influence taken from Errol Flynn. Matthew McConaughey and Hugh Jackman were the original choices for the part. And then Johnny Depp came along and decided to play a drunk and possibly gay Keith Richards. He created his own aesthetic, mannerisms no director would suggest and generally had a ball playing this seeming fool who is always three steps ahead of everyone else. It works for a number of reasons. First, it’s a fully realized performance that director Gore Verbinski has managed to reign in just enough to stop things turning into pantomime. Second, the part is not written for that performance. It’s supposed to be a typical movie hero and his dialogue reflects that, but Depp being this growling libertine who doesn’t care about social mores makes the words fly from the page. Jack Sparrow in that first film is a true cinematic icon and that Oscar nomination, which came out of nowhere, was well deserved. It had been a while since a blockbuster hero had left such an indelible impression on film.
The sad thing is that it’s all downhill from here.
The films made more and more money, but Disney didn’t take their time with the material. The second and third movies were shot back to back and they started production without finished scripts. This shows in the sheer incoherence of the action and plot alike. Everything unfolds like a game of Mad Libs. The stakes are increased every time and the mythology muddled with every new addition, and the battle scenes last longer than most indie films. Great one-off gags from the first film and fleshed out and run into the ground in ways that spoils the fun, and now the screenwriters are writing for Depp’s performance, which cannot help but descend into exhausting parody. By the most recent film, Depp’s work is mostly gurning and swaying.
The evolution of his Jack Sparrow performance feels like a solid encapsulation of Depp’s career: A serious artist who makes daring decisions that pay off in the form of an iconic hero, only to delve into lazy caricature and Brando-esque entitlement, drowning beneath a sea of wine and scarves. Directors stopped bothering to direct him and circus make-up took the place of real acting work, but the pay-cheques got bigger every time, even as the failures increased. And then the abuse scandal happened, and we saw that video of him drinking in the morning while throwing glasses and verbally abusing his wife. The lawsuits mounted up, as did reports of his on-set lateness during production of the 5th movie, and now he’s being sued for punching a crew member in the face, right before he walked on stage at Comic Con to applause.
Depp has been aided and abetted for a long time by an industry that still sees him as a cash cow. That is not to say we should excuse his behaviour or overlook the collateral damage. His legacy has long been tarnished by his own mess, but Disney still considers him one of their guys, a proper Legend who made them billions and who will surely be able to spin that magic once more, right?
Disney don’t need Pirates of the Caribbean anymore. They’re the masters of entertainment and can always just buy another IP for profit. The Curse of the Black Pearl will always hold nostalgic joy for some of us and it can still be appreciated for what it did in the pop culture sphere, but that time has long since passed and it was Disney themselves who helped bury it.
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