I have to admit, after the third movie in the series I decided I was done. The plot was overly complicated, the good guys kept double crossing each other, and the ending... Let's just say a movie of that caliber did not earn such and ending and leave it at that (and no, the after-credits were not enough to provide satisfaction for what was at the time meant to be the end of the trilogy.)
I skipped the fourth. More than that, I forgot it existed and had to look up why this latest installment was billed as Number Five. When the new trailer came out, my first thought was, "Oh no, they're at it AGAIN? Meh." Still, it was a long weekend and I decided to kill a few hours by watching it on the cheap in a smaller local theater. Yes, $11 for an adult ticket is what passes for cheap nowadays. But I digress...
My husband, who saw Dead Men a few days before me, said it was actually better than the original. I'm not sure about that because the original was, well, the original. The characters, the world, the visuals--it was all new and so by default more entertaining. But this one comes close and does better than the original on a couple of fronts. Also, and this is a biggie, we're not talking about going back to the well. This movie continues the story where #3 left off. (I hear Penelope Cruz didn't want to come back. They didn't make the character die of leukemia a la Sarah Connor, but the script behaves as though #4 never happened, as far as I can tell.)
In the first scene, we meet young Henry, Will Turner's son, who promises to break the curse that requires his father to be forever sailing The Flying Dutchman. Fast forward nine years, and grown up Henry is getting in trouble at sea over having too much knowledge of the legends no one believes until... well, I won't spoil that one. In the meantime, Carina, the scientist obsessed with the stars she believes will lead her to her father is about to hang for witchcraft. As for Jack Sparrow, let's just say the shameless ripoff of one of the Fast and Furious movies works very well as his re-introduction scene. The three main characters are thrown together, sometimes literally, until they agree to work with each other to obtain this particular movie's McGuffin.
It is rare to see the fifth entry into any franchise that succeeds both at taking us back and introducing new characters. Henry and Carina are immediately likable as driven, passionate individuals who make a lively, forever bantering couple. Jack Sparrow is entertaining as ever as a down-and-out captain without a ship, far removed from his former glory. (There is a marvelous flashback scene, thanks to the wonders of CGI, that made me wish for a prequel. I wanted to spend the time with THAT Jack Sparrow, one less interesting and flamboyant, but more admirable. If we do see a prequel, I'll know I'm not alone.) Barbossa is seen in a new light, and Salazar, the current villain, is sufficiently murderous yet has understandable motivations. The plot is clear of unnecessary complications, and the action has near perfect balance of CGI and live action. Except for a couple of scenes that look like a setup for a new Disney attraction (you'll know of what I speak when you see them) the movie does not have the look and feel of a video game. The camera work is solid, and there is no confusion, in spite of many scenes taking place in the dark, as to who is doing what where.
And then there are all the things that are not in the movie.
No Strong Female Character. I know, it's shocking to have a woman character who is physically capable, strong-willed, and a scientist to boot to not be the dreaded SFC. Writers of books and movie scripts alike seem to have forgotten that it's possible, and yet here we have Carina as a great reminder. She is smart and educated without knowing everything or being right every time. She is brave and athletic, yet sometimes needs saving from perils she can't handle on her own. She is driven and stubborn without being hostile, and while she doesn't "need" a man, she clearly enjoys being courted even as she refuses to admit it.
No anachronistic nods to modern Hollywood conventions. The romance is sweet, in tune with the rules of the movie's world. Carina blushes at the notion that she's attracted to Henry. Henry is happy at seeing Carina's ankles. Jack Sparrow, being more worldly, makes fun of the innocent lovers, but it's good natured fun, and whatever else Sparrow is meant to be, role model isn't it. There is physical contact, sure, but not the semi-obligatory casual hookup that we'd come to expect and/or fear from most Hollywood productions, whether or not said hookups make sense in the context of the story. Also, Carina's actions are consistent with the way a woman would act in the male-dominated world. When a shop owner tells her to leave and not touch his instruments because women are not allowed inside his shop, she reacts not with righteous indignation or physical assault, but with an offer to fix his maps and to pay him extra for the item she desires. It was a small scene, but I appreciated the care that went into crafting it to feel as true as possible right before the movie veers back into the over-the top action mode.
No on-the-nose references to politics. None. No purposeful controversies during the movie's promotion. No gratuitous jabs at Evil Politician of the Day. No inane quotes that end up marring the telephone poles for decades to come *cough* Star Wars Prequels *cough*. Not even a Very Special Screening for Group X (that one is not the movie's fault, but still highly annoying). All you get is a 2hrs + break from the world events, and it's engaging enough to keep you from checking your social media feed on the phone for the duration. There was a time most if not all blockbusters would provide this oasis of entertainment to the viewers. Now, sadly, it's so rare that it merits praise, and so praise it gets. I recommend it wholeheartedly. See it in the theater. Tell your friends. Let's make it an amazing success so Hollywood gives us more of what we want: good old-fashioned entertainment.