Six Ways to Save “Pirates of the Caribbean” from Itself
A blog post about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Man, I just keep digging myself deeper and deeper into this populist hole.
Avast, to the isle of Tortuga!
At this point, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film has made over $620 million worldwide. Its success makes the decision to green-light a fifth film a no-brainer for Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, but I – along with most of the internet film nerd community – think there is reason to pause and re-consider an immediate course of action.
The dirt sheets are reporting that Johnny Depp isn’t sure he wants to come back for another turn as the series’ fulcrum point, Jack Sparrow. In addition, initial director Gore Verbinski has no interest in returning, and it’s questionable whether or not On Stranger Tides director Rob Marshall will be back. Reportedly, one of the series’ writers, Ted Elliot, has broken off a long-standing partnership with Terry Rossio and opted out of a fifth film, as well. Finally, the fourth film’s critical reception has been the lowest of all the (admittedly ill-received) sequels, with a 33% Rotten Tomatoes score.
So, we have the film nerds turning down a fifth helping, along with the lead actor, one of the writers, and a creative direction that is unclear and shaky. And yet, the newest film has a 65% user score on Rotten Tomatoes (granted, that’s barely passing), and again, has made over $620 million worldwide in just 12 days. Is it a bad business decision to overlook a lack of direction and meaningful interest for a potential cash-in on a popular brand? Yes, it absolutely is. The studio has a responsibility to itself to grow its brand, right?
Actually, no. I would argue that the ever-speedy downfall of Hollywood studios has been a blind determination to grow, despite most practical business sense pointing to the idea of diversification. Disney practices diversification across all of its interests, but doesn’t apply the idea to its stories, for some reason. The mistake the studio and the creative team behind this franchise have made is putting all of the stock of the Pirates of the Caribbean idea into the character of Jack Sparrow. There is no better evidence of this than this latest movie. My wife and I watched it this past weekend, and it is not the atrocious manifesto of Hollywood excess many critics have made it out to be. It is, however, a very boring and visually flat movie lacking a tangible emotional core. Say what you will about the first three movies – and maybe I’m alone in this – but by the end of At World’s End, I was invested in seeing Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley end up together. In On Stranger Tides, there is a muddy and confusing love story between characters played by Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz that has the strangest, most unsettling conclusion of any love story I’ve ever seen. Seriously, it’s almost brilliant in its emotional chaos.
Regardless, with this Sparrow-centric and visually dead entry, Bruckheimer and Disney have completely forsaken what makes this franchise special: the world. Think back to the them park ride the first film was based on… Did you go on that ride a thousand times for one character? For the thrills? For the laughs? No, you went because it was the best, most immersing anima-tronic ride at DisneyWorld (or the original at DisneyLand, depending on your geography). What is so satisfying about the original trilogy? The world that Gore Verbinski created is alive. Yes, the scripts are overloaded, the motivations are hard to follow, the formula is cynically transparent. However, in addition to delivering memorable characterizations, Verbinski crafted a fantasy landscape that is amazingly real and textural. In one film, he LITERALLY has characters emerging from the production design, and you believe it immediately because of the sun-burnt and corroded veneer that is smeared all over everything you see.
To be honest, that’s what brought me back to the theaters for the third movie. I had a lot of problems with the annoying onslaught of sequel cliches and character quips in Dead Man’s Chest, but in the interest of full transparency, going to a Pirates movie during the summer is the next-best thing to going to the beach itself. The atmosphere and the whimsical, anachronistic tone of these things is like candy. I found the third film to be really satisfying as a conclusion to a high-stakes love story, and as a further expansion of the series’ world. I just want to spend more time in this era, in this place, with these rules, but On Stranger Tides flat-out failed at giving that to me. If further entries can’t perpetuate the world, the whole thing isn’t worth it. So, let me re-state one simple statement:
Jack Sparrow is a supporting character.
For this franchise to be useful, interesting, or profitable in a long-term sense, Disney/Bruckheimer have to diversify. They cannot just react and feed specific fan appetite, because Jack Sparrow is tethered to Johnny Depp, and Depp should have the freedom to roam. Seriously, we may have lost of one of the best actors of his generation to the cynical workings of the Hollywood system. Let the guy experiment without Disney or Tim Burton spurring it on.
Disney should take hints from their biggest recent acquisition, Marvel. In their films and in their comics, Marvel tries hard to let the universe be king, rather than individual personalities. This allows stories to grow organically out of circumstance and contrast rather than marketing tactics or “screen” time. The Marvel Studio’s biggest cinematic misstep so far has been an over-reliance on star power in Iron Man 2. I am not against the star system, but in the game of expanded story universes, individuals must bow to a greater sense of place.
To be clear, nowhere in this post have I mentioned that I want this series to die. I just want it to survive healthily, instead of by artificial hype and repetition. So, here’s what would I like to see from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and what I think is necessary for the brand to stay alive beyond eventual fan fatigue:
1. Kick Out Jack Sparrow.
Again, Depp’s creation is a fun supporting character, but he’s become the false lead in this series. The “franchise lead hand-off” is a blockbuster maneuver that I can’t recall ever working, but it is something that seems to be happening to Jeremy Renner for both the Bourne series and the Mission:Impossible series. It’s a bold and painful move to separate a franchise from its MVP, but in a case like this, where the world of the story is so rich, I think it must be done.
2. An Expanded Universe.
Disney currently has at least two comics outlets: BOOM! and Marvel. A comic book series, like Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics, that explores ancillary characters and locations in the world of Pirates of the Caribbean would be fantastic, and a natural way to experiment and find new and interesting stories and creations. To be fair, On Stranger Tides does try to introduce a new direction in the form of a martyred missionary character, but the bored script and a dodgy performance just sink the attempt. A direction for a new feature should happen organically, grown out of fan interest in elements of the mythos presented in novels, video games, comics, and an animated series.
3. A Handbook.
Despite my appreciation for Curse of the Black Pearl and At World’s End, they’re plenty messy. In this world, a pirate seems to be a genetic malady. If an expanded universe does get created, things need to become clearer and stay that way. Disney: Pay Verbinski, Bruckheimer, Rossio, and Elliot a couple bucks to spend some time to make a “bible” for these stories. Rules, geography, and physical limitations are essential.
4. Some Respect.
On the great movie podcast All Movie Talk, co-host Stephen Keller once lamented that if only the American public had been more intelligent in 2003, we would have a Master & Commander trilogy rather than a Pirates trilogy. I agree with this to a certain degree, but I do appreciate the fantasy elements of these movies. That said, for my tastes, there could be more direct nods to the great swashbucklers in cinema history. Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and even Hook are adventures worthy of borrowing from and paying homage to.
5. Escape The Formula.
This latest film has only gone to show that the series has worked itself into a structural rut. It’s always a tricky balancing act to observe tradition and to fight formula in movie series. The case here is = [(Johnny Depp + Dueling Villians + Tragic Love Story + Sailor Mythology) Over Two Hours]. None of these, outside of the sailor mythology, are what make these movies special. Color outside the lines, guys.
Here’s the big one. Disney/Bruckheimer are going to make fat bank off of another Pirates movie, so they’re logically going to spend another $200 million to make it. What if Depp isn’t on board, though? Will fans still come out to see it? It’s a sloppy catch-22, and should have been avoided by this point. If they’re serious about maintaining the Pirates brand, after testing the waters a bit with comics and games and animated series, the suits would be smart to show some thrift. Get a lean, mean script with interesting characters and a sharp dynamic, and shoot it for $60 million, with fantastic actors looking for a break. More studios could learn from District 9 and Hellboy, both of which created vivid, imaginative worlds for way less than $100 million. I should add that this is just a wiser practice in general. If Hollywood filmmakers could actually budget their mind-blowing allowances, there would be a lot more room to experiment and to make interesting movies, both of which – in the long term – make money.
But there’s the problem, right? Studios like Disney and Bruckheimer and the rest need a fast turnaround to satiate investors watching quarterly profits. So, a lean, mean Pirates picture might not pay off with $600 million worldwide in 12 days. However, it may very well make $300 million over a few months, build word-of-mouth, make for a successful home video release, build interest in other stories within the brand, promote new characters in the world of the story, and ultimately pay off with a sequel that makes over $1 billion. If this seems like a sure thing, that’s because it’s EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED with the first and second films in the series. However, that kind of strategy takes more patience, more discipline, more risk, and more trial-and-error than bloated Hollywood studios can afford… or more than they think they can afford, at least.
Regardless, I wish the best for the franchise, despite feeling like one of the few internet movie geeks that actually enjoys these movies. I feel they’ve yet to reach their full potential, which is quite obviously within grasp. There really are some great adventure stories to be told in the world of Pirates of the Caribbean. But alas, until Jerry gets my fruit basket and starts returning my text messages, I’ll just have to settle for listening to Hans Zimmer’s amazing At World’s End score on loop while watching Corona commercials on YouTube.