There is a movie series based on a ride at Disney World which is the fourteenth highest grossing franchise of all time. It brought in over 4.5 billion dollars at the worldwide box office, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards with one win, and boosted the careers of two well-known actors while vaulting another into stardom. But three years removed from the series’ final installment, no one seems to talk about it.
This series, of course, is Pirates of the Caribbean.
You may have just read that title and been immediately transported back to 13 years ago when the credits rolled on the third installment of the franchise, At World’s End. This was the conclusion to a perfect trilogy – one which knew exactly what it wanted to be. It never tried to reach beyond its limits, but it didn’t let these limits constrain it. The trilogy was wacky, zany, over the top, meticulously-plotted, hilarious, narratively and thematically cohesive, action packed, and most of all, full of heart.
Or maybe the sequels were just not for you, but you still were transported back 17 years to when The Curse of the Black Pearl was first released. This was a pirate movie that was actually fun, had memorable characters and music, and hinted at a larger world and mythology. It’s the perfect standalone film.
If their box office totals alone are any indicator, these movies were massively popular. But after fourth and fifth installments were released in 2011 and 2015, any enthusiasm for the franchise seemed to all but vanish. It’s a puzzling and disappointing development at best, but baffling and predictable at worst.
When you have a profitable franchise such as Pirates, especially if you’re Disney, you’re going to want to milk the cash cow for as long as it will produce. Just look at The Fast and the Furious or Transformers – these franchises have long overstayed their welcome to some in the critical sphere, but they still bring in huge profits at the box office, so the studios will keep producing them. With Fast, there are ardent defenders of the latter movies, and Transformers is fun to use as a punchline. Pirates’ problem is that it has neither of those. After On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales received series-worst reviews, it seemed like the series simply disappeared from public consciousness.
The issue isn’t simply that these movies were bad – Transformers is bad, but still talked about – it’s that they were forgettable.
With the first three movies in the series, Gore Verbinski had created a perfect trilogy. The first film introduced the characters, minimal mythology, and hinted at a much larger pirates world. 2006’s sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, built on the beginning mythology and introduced a Big Bad in Davy Jones. The final installment created a perfect conclusion which completed Jack Sparrow’s arc by having him finally make the selfless move after always only looking out for himself.
These three movies all feel of a piece. They have the same writers and director, the special effects were excellent, and the musical themes built upon each other to make a truly iconic score. You never had the feeling that the series was being dragged along just to make more money. It felt more like these were people who had a three-part story they wanted to tell, and they went out and told it. Had the series not been unfortunately continued, this initial trilogy would be in the running for my favorite trilogy of all time.
But again, the unneeded sequels were completely forgettable. After I watched the original trilogy countless times, I’ve seen the soulless followups just twice each (once in theaters, and once more in preparation for this piece and its accompanying podcast!). Much like Davy Jones, these two movies completely lack heart. They try to be intricately-plotted like their predecessors, but they completely fail. Characters become parodies of themselves, the action isn’t as inventive, the humor resorts to the lowest common denominator, and the tone and direction feel separate. The franchise overstayed its welcome similar to Bourne or even Indiana Jones.
Pirates of the Caribbean has become a lesson in a franchise overstaying its welcome. The first three films were something very particular with a specific group of filmmakers and actors. That story was told and completed expertly. But just when it should have been satisfied with its conclusion, the franchise was brought back and morphed into something that was Pirates in name only.
There have been talks of a sixth movie pretty much since the fifth was released. But based on the latest rumors, it seems like it could stray even further from the original spirit. With Johnny Depp in the midst of legal and personal struggles, he may not even be involved in the production, which would make it less of a part of this series than even On Stranger Tides was. At a certain point, you just need to declare time of death on a franchise. And it’s a shame it ever came to this point for Pirates, which was in the perfect position to exit on its own terms. But now it’s not even being asked to leave – it’s walking out the door without anyone even noticing.