“This is either madness… or brilliance” exclaims Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner in 2003’s franchise opener The Curse of the Black Pearl. Which of the two adjectives you feel best applies to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise will likely define your position on their worth. However, in a practically perfect summation of the films’ exhibition of both, the iconic Sparrow retorts, “It’s remarkable how often those two traits coincide”.
Pirates as a series has had enough ups and downs to be mistaken for a hormonal teenager during exam season, with On Stranger Tides reflecting an un-revised multiple choice paper which resulted in the marginally improved resit that is Salazar’s Revenge (sometimes known under the slightly better title Dead Men Tell No Tales). Of course this follows the confidence boost courtesy of a debut 1st followed by some increasingly shaky 2.1s in the form of Gore Verbinski’s trilogy. The fact of the matter though is that despite the failures, and in keeping with the (far too extended) metaphor, Pirates of the Caribbean never forgets to have fun. The most of which is had when the madness is contained and coincided with its aspects of undeniable brilliance.
It isn’t a difficult task to defend the franchise’s early installments; The Curse of the Black Pearl offers one of the best blockbusters of the 21st century so far, boasting strong characters, immaculate production design and an overwhelming sense of big-budget joy. Dead Man’s Chest provides an entirely worthy sequel and At World’s End would have allowed a satisfying closing note had it not been for Disney’s pirate-like greed for loot. It seems to be this, along with amnesia surrounding the treasures of its origins, which continues to sink further additions away from brilliance and toward insanity.
Regardless of its faults, Pirates will always revel in childlike craziness, uncompromising fantasy and desire for pure adventure along with all of its terrors. Balancing between fanaticism and excellence, the electrically kinetic image of a sword fight a top a runaway wheel as Sparrow attempts to run inside is both ingenious and bonkers, and it seems only Pirates could pull it off. Jack himself is a manifestation of the two, delving into moments of idiocy and ingenuity as if the words were synonyms. Though it is the heart that is often forgotten; ironic considering the organ’s significance in the franchise. Similarly to that of Davy Jones, Pirates keeps it locked in a chest and reveals its beats preciously. Will and Elizabeth’s relationship, the father and son bond of the Turner’s which not even an ancient curse can dampen and the under the surface complexity of a pirate who cares and is reminded of such by his compass is somehow abnormally beautiful. All of this accompanied by a wondrous theme which could compete with the best equates to a franchise of complete cinematic spectacle.
It is easy to forget where it came from when Jack takes another sip of rum and borders on caricature of himself, or a new villain crops up wanting an interchangeable mystical treasure, but Pirates of the Caribbean was, and is, more than just Depp in fancy dress. It’s what the blockbuster was made for – popcorn enthused escapism of the highest form. It’s an example of two of film’s key ingredients coinciding, madness and brilliance, in a collision of majestic proportions. After five installments, featuring one and a half disappointing outings, it would be fair to consider Jack defeated but with a look back over the horizon you’ll find a franchise with more buried treasures than you may have given it credit for. Critics, come ye may… but this is the day you shall always remember as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow.