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It’s easy to forget that Pirates of the Caribbean began its life over half a century ago, in 1957, when Disneyland introduced a dark water ride set in the bawdy, dangerous world of buccaneers evidently somewhere between the bayou and the Bahamas.
The popular albeit unassuming theme park attraction (the final ride to bear Walt Disney’s personal touch before his death) was transformed into a film in 2003—Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl—and suddenly a blockbuster movie franchise was born, certainly not the least of which was because of an instantly iconic performance by Johnny Depp. Four movies, $1.3 billion dollars, the catapulting of stars like Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, and 14 years worth of bad Jack Sparrow impressions later, it’s time to add another Pirates movie to the mix—and see what it might do to honor its landlubber legacy.
Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth in the swashbuckling series, promises to do a few things in its May 26 release: Give Jack Sparrow another fabled treasure to pursue (the trident of Poseidon) and villain to vanquish (Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar, a vengeful Spanish admiral whom a young Jack turned into a waterlogged zombie); expand the story of the Turner family by introducing Will and Elizabeth’s headstrong son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites); and brush off some of the tonal touchstones from the first Pirates film that may have eroded after a decade and a half of seawater.
“The first Pirates of the Caribbean reminded me of the movies that I grew up with, the Zemeckis and Spielberg and Lucas adventures that inspired me to become a filmmaker, so coming back to that was a dream come true for me,” says Joachim Rønning, who, with co-director Espen Sandberg, was entrusted with the franchise’s steering wheel (or whatever the nautical folk call it) after their 2012 expedition drama, Kon-Tiki.
Rønning isn’t shy about naming the first film his favorite in the franchise, or calling it his biggest inspiration for Dead Men Tell No Tales, having analyzed the exact ingredients he treasured. “It’s scary, it’s funny, and most of all it’s a comedy, but with great heart, and that structure and the dynamics between the characters was something I really wanted to try and reinvent,” he says. “It’s basically a love story. It’s a period piece, yes, but about real people falling in love, with Jack Sparrow coming in every now and then crashing the party. But it’s important that, since Jack doesn’t really have a character arc, you as an audience have to really invest in the other characters.”
What Rønning, Sandberg, and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson were keen to craft was a new protagonist relationship of decidedly different ilk than, say, the two relationships explored in On Stranger Tides (between Jack and his former paramour Angelica, and between a missionary and a mermaid). In the fifth film, Henry sparks on his journey with aspiring astronomer and ever-fleeing rogue Carina (Kaya Scodelario); in their pairing, the filmmakers found a new connection on which they could anchor a new story and a heartstring or two. “In the middle of a big action scene, you need to be able to lean on the characters and find the heart of that story and channel the characters’ vulnerability,” says Rønning. “Henry and Carina are on a similar quest and find common ground in looking for who they are, which I think is a huge part of what I tried to put into the story.” Like Orlando Bloom’s once-curious Will Turner, the search for identity is a major theme, says the director, teasing: “A treasure is not always a casket full of gold.”
So, there’s the heart (and trust that fans of Will and Elizabeth won’t be disappointed in their emotional offerings, either). As for ensuring that Dead Men maintains the first film’s comic legacy, the task again rests on the shoulders of Depp. Though the actor is aided by other legacy ingredients—outrageous Caribbean chases, inept British officers, and even the return of a bumbling pair of fan-favorite characters—it’s Depp whom Rønning calls a “comedic genius” for his effortless mania, especially during Jack’s bountiful action sequences: “He has a comedic timing that I’ve never seen in anyone. He comes on set, it’s one or two takes, and I can move on. He knows this character inside and out, and that’s such a luxury, as a director, to work with someone like that. But at the same time, it was very much a collaboration. He loved our meetings in his trailer, making the best out of every scene. Comedy was very important for Johnny, and we worked really hard to squeeze every drop out of every scene that has humor in it.”
The result, as you’ll perhaps witness on May 26, is a film that brings Pirates back to its structural roots—both the animatronic maritime fantasy that Walt Disney first attempted back when Pirates was but a theme park tryst, and the lightning in a bottle formula that sparked a phenomenon after the world met Jack Sparrow. “It was all there in this script already, and for me, it was just a matter of adding scenes that carry on the tradition of Gore Verbinski, bring the emotional core and big action pieces, and [take inspiration from] the physical humor of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton,” Rønning gushes. “On a daily basis, it was a big circus. Arriving onto this set, coming out of my trailer in the morning and walking 10 minutes to the set, you see a thousand people all working there. And you do… get a little lost… at sea.” Apparently, Dead Men do tell puns.