Pirates of the Caribbean, its Sequels and Disney's Attempts to Replicate It
All pictures courtesy of Disney
Intro - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is definitely a classic at this point. Like how those who grew up in the '80s would point to Indiana Jones as an adventure film staple, people my age having grown up in the '00s would champion Pirates as our own. Since the film's release in 2003, there have been two epic-scale back to back sequels and a further two interspersed after that. Its legacy is huge, not just being a generic pirate movie, not being a generic adventure movie or Indiana Jones knock-off. And this all stems from a Disney theme park ride.
The film was floating about at Disney, but gained legs when blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer signed on and the original script of pirate adventure was rewritten to have a supernatural twist. Disney's CEO pushed back against the film's production, as an expensive budget being put on a pirate blockbuster seemed to be a gamble at the time. The last big pirate movie was 1995's Cutthroat Island which at the time of release was the biggest box-office bomb of all-time. That film's colossal failure led to the idea of a pirate movie being met with a lot of uncertainty of its market viability. However the film went ahead and had a smooth production process and was on track to be released in 2003.
On release Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl defied a lot of people's expectations. There was question not only on the viability of a pirate film, but also the fact it was based on a theme park attraction made it seem quaint. But on arrival Pirates was acclaimed as a great summer blockbuster. The combination of swashbuckling action, exciting adventure and well thought out comic sensibilities made this a huge success. Beyond that though, Johnny Depp's starring role as Captain Jack Sparrow felt genuinely novel. He was a fantastic wildcard thrown in the middle of an expected romance between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley's characters. Depp really crafts an iconic character here, someone you're never quite sure of with his eccentric attitude and seemingly improvisational angle to pirating. This led to Pirates of the Caribbean having a real spark to it, ending up one of the most financially successful films of 2003. Generally critics enjoyed the film as well so all was going well for Disney, and of course, this meant we were gonna get sequels.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) & Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
Not just any standard Hollywood blockbuster sequel either, the cast and crew signed on for what would become the largest Hollywood production ever, at the time. Two sequels shot back to back were greenlit, with a combined budget of $450 million, for comparison previously the most expensive Hollywood production was the back to back Matrix sequels which totalled $237 million. Clearly Disney saw Pirates as too big to fail.
...and they were right! The first sequel subtitled Dead Man's Chest was released in 2006 to much anticipation. Audiences flocked to the sequel, making it the most successful film of the year, grossing over a billion dollars. While critically it was met more divisively. Despite being not as tightly put together as the original, this film's colossal scope and admirably large ambitions are hard not to be in awe of. Director Gore Verbinski stepped up his game, offering even bigger set-pieces, visually the film is excellent and the CGI holds up incredibly to this very day. This is part one of a bigger story, and this leads to some pacing issues since this time the main cast are mostly separate until the final act, lacking the killer chemistry that fuelled a lot of the first movie.
After ending with a great cliff-hanger, people were left to wait a year for the release of the trilogy closer: At World's End. Again it was a large success, the most successful movie of 2007, grossing near a billion dollars. It was met with stronger critical pushback though. People who thought Dead Man's Chest was bloated would've had a field day with this one. While still incredibly ambitious and impressively well made, the movie feels like it goes on forever. It's a big spectacle, but one that's easy to pick apart given the convoluted scripting and growing cast of characters, which make it a more messy blockbuster, that's enjoyable more because of its ambitions rather than its plot and characters. Still, the film nicely ties up the story of Will and Elizabeth (Bloom and Knightley's characters) and leaves Jack Sparrow with a vague enough thread, that could be picked up on for a sequel.
(Stills from Dead Man's Chest)
(Stills from At World's End)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Of course if you're making billions of dollars of box-office money from a franchise, you'd ideally want to milk it for as much as possible. Luckily it seems like Jack Sparrow was off on another adventure at the end of the trilogy, so in 2011 we get a fourth film.
On Stranger Tides is a standalone sequel to the trilogy, focusing on Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow character, though also bringing back Geoffrey Rush for his role as Captain Barbossa. A new director, Rob Marshall was brought on as Gore Verbinski was unavailable. Interestingly, despite Disney attempts to keep the budget of this film under control, it ballooned into what is still the most expensive individual film production ever, with a budget of near $400 million. Quite astonishing given the previous two films cost around that much and were far more ambitious.
This film ended up a disappointment for many. By this point Johnny Depp's schtick as Captain Jack Sparrow was wearing thin. Without Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to balance out his eccentricities, his presence as a lead character is no longer novel or particularly entertaining. It feels like an artless film, one more implicitly created to collect a big box-office pay check than before. Its set of new characters and expensive set-pieces are instantly forgettable. Generally the film is mediocre and the kinetic direction that made Gore Verbinski's trilogy such a thrill, is pretty much absent here. On Stranger Tides is a film that is hardly offensive but absolutely unmemorable and unremarkable. It still grossed a billion dollars, but given such a tepid critical response and a now dwindling audience reception, the future of the Pirates franchise was in doubt. Disney needed something fresh to produce a box-office cash cow from. The first attempt came a year after On Stranger Tides with an expensive sci-fi adventure film titled John Carter.
John Carter (2012)
John Carter is the biggest box-office bomb of all-time currently, Disney lost hundreds of millions of dollars on this movie. Based on the largely influential sci-fi 1912 novel A Princess of Mars, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is also known for creating the character of Tarzan, who Disney would use for an animated film of their own in 1999. There had been attempts to make a John Carter movie for years and years, as far back as 1931. Disney was interested in making the film in the ‘80s in order to compete against Star Wars. Finally the project gained life again through a push from Pixar veteran director Andrew Stanton who lobbied to Disney for the rights for the film to be reacquired. Stanton pitched the film as “Indiana Jones on Mars”, which was met with scepticism. The screenplay was criticised as confusing and Stanton had never directed a live-action film before, let alone one of the size and budget that John Carter was shaping up to be.
Still, the script was revised and a tumultuous filming schedule began. Andrew Stanton’s lack of experience directing live-action ended up costing Disney, as he ended up doing a lot of re-shoots and by the end of production, it ended up the most expensive non-sequel, non-franchise film of all-time with an estimated cost of $307 Million. For context, the smash hit from James Cameron Avatar which had similar scope, CGI heavy scenes and similar levels of star power in the cast, cost a fair bit less at $237 million. Uh oh.
What it got right
Well, John Carter can’t be faulted for its visuals and ambition. This film looks pretty great still to this day, the CGI motion capture for the aliens is very good, much like Avatar and leads to a seamless looking alien world of Mars. There’s some entertaining action sequences, it’s not too poorly paced and runs at 132 minutes, which is acceptable for a big blockbuster of this size (compared to the bloated Pirates sequels). There’s an old-school sense of adventure to this film which could be considered refreshing, owing a debt to ‘70s sci-fi and ‘80s adventure films. However its original pitch of “Indiana Jones on Mars” certainly falls flat in the final product.
What it got wrong
So this was meant to launch a franchise and immediately there’s so much standing in the way of that ever happening, before money even comes on the table. Firstly, Mr. John Carter himself is played by Taylor Kitsch. An unconventional leading man from a marketing perspective, but he’s attractive and fits the “space Tarzan” look that John Carter is meant to have. However his approach to the character lacks humour and lacks heart. Whether this is down to Taylor Kitsch being a bit of a wet blanket or the writing just being too self-interested in its mythos, is up in the air. Probably somewhere in the middle. Indiana Jones succeeds through moments of levity amongst the peril, here John Carter is stone faced and serious most of the film. There’s also an unconvincing romance established with Lynn Collins, it’s all very generic once you peel away the exciting visuals.
The script is filled with technobabble and is remarkably sloppy at times. A drinking game for this movie would be to go bottoms up anytime John Carter is knocked out, imprisoned or captured - because it’s the screenwriter’s primary way of getting our lead from location to location. There’s no doubt that the novel that this is based on, A Princess of Mars, was an influential title, but since 1912 the ideas presented there had already been pillaged and its innovative elements had been recycled for films such as Star Wars and even James Cameron’s Avatar, released only three years prior to massive success. Perhaps part of what let John Carter balloon out of control was the thought that if an imitator could reach such success, the real thing is sure to get to similar heights. They were wrong.
Why it failed
Fans of this film online point their fingers firmly at the film’s marketing. Which is a fair accusation. Mainly the title of the film “John Carter”, not a great one honestly. If you asked somebody if they wanted to go see “John Carter” this weekend, they’d probably reply back “who?”. The story behind the generic title for the film is that originally it was titled "John Carter of Mars", which at least then implies a sci-fi adventure film instead of literally any genre possible. Reports of the name change are conflicting, some state that director Andrew Stanton wanted the title to reflect the character’s journey, as it is an origin story and he is not actually "John Carter of Mars" until the ending. Alternatively, some say Disney were scared of the word “Mars” after one of their other films, a motion capture animated abomination Mars Needs Moms was also a massive financial loss for the company. Obviously that wasn’t because that movie was bad, looked bafflingly uncanny and had a full title that sounded preposterous, but because the word “Mars” was included.
For a film of this size, star power is often required. James Cameron’s Avatar got away with this by making the CGI and 3D the primary selling points, and even then Sigourney Weaver was present who's a bigger star than anybody here. Perhaps John Carter was hoping for a repeat, but Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins had no box-office draw and by 2012, 3D was losing its novelty. As for the director, Andrew Stanton had directed a few great animated films, but compared to James Cameron's track record, it's incomparable. The lead’s chemistry was not convincing and there were not many really memorable action set-pieces or sharp comedic moments, so word of mouth was unlikely to help it much. If this was to launch a trilogy like Pirates of the Caribbean it needed to modernise itself somewhat instead of banking on worn tropes with a shiny gloss of expensive CGI paint. John Carter feels like a film you'd take your dad to go see, its an expensive update on classic adventure films but with very little of the spark that Pirates had to appeal to a worldwide audience.
In the end, the marketing definitely didn’t help. I’m sure many saw the trailer or the posters and were left scratching their heads, it just looks like an expensive Avatar esque sci-fi film. There’s not much other than visuals to draw people in. Even if people did flock to watch it, I doubt the tepid script and charmless adventure would’ve led to much demand for the planned trilogy to go ahead. The problem with John Carter is that it feels like a movie for sci-fi nerds. But unlike say, Star Wars or the newer Star Trek films, there's little heart to it. It's all about the convoluted sci-fi story and a straight-faced, boring romance.
(These promotional movie posters don't really sell much of the film. A generic title of "John Carter" seems to clash with the sci-fi elements on show).
The Lone Ranger (2013)
Based on a classic American character who's been the basis of radio shows, books, TV shows and other films, comes a Disney take on the character and franchise. Hilariously, The Lone Ranger, which was released just one year after the disastrous John Carter, is the second biggest box-office bomb of all-time. Losing Disney, give or take, at least a further hundred and fifty million dollars. This film re-assembled the team behind Pirates of the Caribbean. So this, beyond any other film, was the most obvious grasp at replicating the franchise launching success of Curse of the Black Pearl. Director Gore Verbinski is back, after skipping the fourth Pirates film to make the oddball animated film Rango. The screenplay was written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who also wrote the Pirates movies. Johnny Depp is in a starring role as well. Surely, audiences will recognise that this is Pirates of Caribbean, but a western. All the pieces are in place to launch a new franchise that's familiar, yet fresh in comparison to another Pirates film.
However before the movie even started filming there were budget concerns. Lots of big names on the project including Depp, Verbinski and leading man Armie Hammer, all took a salary deferral to help combat a ballooning budget. Disney reworked the budget and filming went ahead. By this point the film's turbulent production had been highly publicised and after John Carter's failure just a year prior, critics were ready to pounce on this over-produced film as a target for takedown.
What went right
There's some excellent blockbuster set-pieces on show here, arguably better than anything Gore Verbinski pulled off in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (and there's some REALLY impressive stuff on show there). That's high praise for a movie that supposedly didn't replicate the success of that franchise, but really there's some wonderful train robbery sequences here. The opening set-piece and the final act extravaganza are both tip-top, incredibly well put together action sequences. Just like Pirates the action is given moments of levity through quick bursts of humour and it makes for thrilling film-making. The plot here is solid, though not as universally appealing as Pirates was. Surprisingly, it has a smart deconstruction of American telling's of westerns, this time aiming not to marginalize the roles of natives. Now, there's a particularly large Johnny Depp shaped elephant in the room considering what I just wrote, but it's true, the plot has some good thoughtful moments.
This film is also consistently fantastic looking, you'd expect such an expensive production to look the part and front to back, this looks like pure money. It's genuinely exciting to see a modern western film that's this ambitious. Its tone is largely similar to the Pirates films and does give a few good laughs amongst the serious moments and instances of character development. There's a great movie in here, but as it stands... It needed some tweaking to push it out to a mass market.
What went wrong
There's no getting away from the fact that Depp should not be the Native sidekick character, Tonto. From the very first line he delivers it's a real wince inducing performance. A casting choice which was so poor, that everyone everywhere knew it was wrong - but money said it was right. And so money won. Perhaps the most fantastical element of this film is the implication that money doesn't always win. It's made even worse by the film's seemingly well intentioned plot elements of busting western myths to highlight the marginalization of natives, being contradicted by a casting choice which marginalizes natives by asking Johnny Depp to dress up and do a hokey accent.
Much like Verbinski's Pirates sequels, this film is overlong and bloated. Though I feel like it's worse here than in either of those films. After a riotous opening and a solid first act setting up the general plot, we are left in what feels like the longest second act of all-time. It gets boring, it's honestly a struggle to make it to the final act, though it is worth it for another top tier action scene. The languid pacing will make many viewers lose interest and to make things worse, the tone just isn't quite right. For a Disney PG-13 movie this has a nice amount of violence, they don't hold back on that front too much. But also it's just occasionally goofy in ways that don't work. Armie Hammer's lead is one that's hard to pin down because he changes from straight faced to a bumbling fool, depending on if the scene is needed to gather laughs or not. He just isn't consistent. Johnny Depp is just tired here, doing his typical wacky schtick. Compared to Captain Jack Sparrow, his take on Tonto is just not good. Finally, the villain played by William Fichtner lacks any particularly alluring swagger. He's instantly forgettable. Other cast members such as Helene Bonham Carter also fail to make too much of an impression.
Why it failed
Critically this was maligned and there was negative coverage of the film before it even hit the cinemas, based off of its rocky production and impressively bloated budget. While the film's stars and directors point towards critics "reviewing the budget and production" rather than the film itself, looking at reviews it's a common complaint that the pacing is poorly thought out and the film is too long and too boring in the middle. Depp's casting as Tonto ruffled some feathers, but back in 2013 this was not a massive source of contention, though you bet if they tried that today there'd be outroar.
This film followed a string of previous big-budget westerns that had bombed, such as 1999's Wild Wild West and 2011's Cowboys & Aliens, which seems to point towards general audiences just not being interested in westerns anymore, no matter how expensive and similar to Pirates of the Caribbean they are. This movie opened in the box-office on fourth of July weekend and was up against the family friendly animated film Despicable Me 2, which proved to be the film of choice for most Americans.
However, unlike John Carter, whose box-office downfall is hard to sympathise with given the film's generally lacklustre quality, The Lone Ranger is pretty good despite a languid second act. Gore Verbinski directs fantastic action sequences and the scale and visuals of this film are to be applauded. While I'm not sure we really needed a trilogy, as was planned if this film was to be a success, I would love to see Gore Verbinski be given another go at a big expensive blockbuster, as long as he has someone on hand to help him cut the fat and make a more streamlined movie experience.
The Lone Ranger proved that everyone loves to watch a train wreck, but maybe real life ones are more exciting than ones on the big screen. For publications, Disney losing hundreds of millions of dollars, just a year after John Carter did the same was an intoxicating story. More interesting to many than a western in 2013. even if the train wrecks looked cool on screen too.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
After two back to back gigantic blockbuster failures, Disney chilled out a bit with their live-action output. They released Maleficent which was a fantasy adventure film, a re-imagining of Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty film from the perspective of the villain. While Disney had previously released a Tim Burton take on Alice in Wonderland back in 2010 to massive success, Maleficent achieving further success launched the "Disney Live-Action Remakes and Re-imaginings" genre of film. With Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Pete's Dragon, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, The Lion King and further film's which either ape the classic animated film or add a slight dark twist like Maleficent or Cruella.
The only odd film out over the course of 2013-2020 are Tomorrowland, a strange sci-fi film based on Walt Disney him self's optimistic view of the future and some of his concepts of expanding Disneyworld. While quite unique in the blockbuster-sphere, it didn't really feel like it appealed to anyone except hardcore Disney lovers who have Disneyworld season tickets. It's not hard to see why, despite some novel ideas, that film was also a box-office bomb.
So when all your most novel ideas are bombing, why not just make another Pirates of the Caribbean? Well, On Stranger Tides is somewhat nebulous in judging it as a success or not given just how bloated its budget became, seemingly needlessly. Disney made sure to try and keep things under control for a fifth title in the franchise titled Dead Men Tell No Tales. In 2017 we're now 14 years removed from the original film so the tone this time around was decisively aiming for nostalgia for those who enjoyed the first film in the franchise the most. It's stripped back a bit from the epic-scale of the other sequels and features a lot of familiar iconography in how it builds new characters, perhaps hoping to outdo the forgettable fourth film's new additions.
In the end, Dead Men Tell No Tales makes the franchise feel like it's on its last legs. Johnny Depp is just here to collect a pay check and be quirky, nothing interesting is happening with his character anymore, but he's so iconic that it would be box-office poison to not include him. Compared to the standalone On Stranger Tides, here plot threads are tied back to the original trilogy. Jack Sparrow is accompanied by two young lovers, one of which is the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley's characters, the two young lovers from the original films. It feels like a rehash, the scale of things is set back and it's the shortest film in the franchise thus far, but still it feels like it's outstaying its welcome. Visually, the new villains look cool and there's a few kinetic set-pieces that aim for the grand fun of Gore Verbinski's films. But mostly this feels flat. It even ends with a sequel tease that promises to bring back the franchise's most famous villain, Davy Jones, which is a clear act of nostalgia baiting given his character arc is all but closed up.
With the budget under control, even slightly reduced box-office figures mean that Dead Men Tell No Tales can be considered a financial success. Though a more modest one compared to the original trilogy. Critically, again, this was not well liked. Though perhaps due to the more familiar iconography and aim to capitalise on nostalgia, audiences were kinder to this one that On Stranger Tides. What's next for Pirates? Well back in 2018 the plan was to start developing a reboot, to free themselves of the baggage of Johnny Depp, however this was cancelled and currently a Depp involved sixth film is in the works. Pirates of the Carribean is still far too marketable for us not to see another film emerge sometime soon I'm sure.
Jungle Cruise (2021)
Jungle Cruise, like Pirates of the Caribbean is based on a Disney theme park attraction. The ride in question is a faux-exotic cruise through a river in the amazon as a Disney cast member, called a "skipper", narrates and makes corny jokes. The success of the Pirates movie optioned this movie into a pre-production phase as early as 2004. The project gestated for years, before picking up in 2015 with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson being attached to star. Filming began a few years later in 2018, with Emily Blunt being cast opposite Johnson. The majority of filming took place in 2018, with some reshoots being done in 2019. The recipe is in place to ape the style and success of Pirates of the Caribbean, a charismatic cast on an exotic adventure with a slight supernatural twist.
Notably however, since Disney's colossal failures with John Carter and The Lone Ranger, they had become even more of an all-encompassing media giant. Through purchasing successful franchises like Marvel's superhero cinematic universe and George Lucas' Star Wars saga, as well as consistently digging up their animated classics and re-doing them in live-action. Perhaps Disney's hunger for a live-action franchise had finally been found, though now in 2021 a light-hearted adventure film like this sticks out amongst their output as something interesting.
Originally planned for a release in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put this on the backburner until Disney decided to release it not just in cinemas but on their Disney+ streaming service (for a $30 entry fee on top of the monthly subscription) in July of 2021.
What went right
Generally this is a tried and true adventure film. It's got a lot of tropes, but not to a degree where it feels totally redundant. Emily Blunt is a charming lead and The Rock also does his part as a crowd-pleasing protagonist. Generally the film is paced well, the plot is kept driving forward and interspersed with action thrills as well as standard character building moments. The fact they pay homage to the theme park ride at the beginning is charming. I think it's enjoyable that there are a few good twists and turns in the plot, which is initially presented as a simple 'point a -> point b' sort of adventure. As with pretty much all of Disney's recent output, this is inoffensive and agreeable to a fault, which means you're not likely to be disappointed with it if you're the sort of person who enjoys Marvel movies or the live-action Disney remakes.
What went wrong
To be fair to Jungle Cruise, its flaws aren't as apparent or problematic as the film's listed above. A lot of little things are disappointing, such as the visuals, with plastic looking CGI and lots and lots of underwhelming blue screen backgrounds. Visually it pales in comparison to the eye candy of Gore Verbinski's Pirates or The Lone Ranger. Even John Carter fares better, and these were all films made years and years ago. The film is directed to employ a lot of close-ups and medium shots, which I don't feel works that well for what's supposed to be this grand adventure. Rarely does the film achieve a sense of scale that makes the adventure seem impressive. Combined with hyper-active editing, it's hard to really get a grasp of the scope of certain scenes, which I'm sure were very expensive and well produced.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is one of the few remaining actors who can be a large box-office draw. A lot of people compare him to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the '80s, a go to guy for a big action flick. He's a charming presence and works wonders for action-comedies or amongst a larger cast like in the Fast & Furious films or Jumanji sequels. Here though, after the first act is out of the way and his character starts to receive some depth and a romance with Emily Blunt, the fact he's just playing the same character as he always does in everything wears thin. My mind wanders as to what an actor with greater range, say, Oscar Isaac or Pedro Pascal, could've done in the role. But, money speaks above all as we know.
WILL it fail?
Well the answer to this one is up in the air, given its recent release and the uncertainty of measuring the success of a film during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is again a very expensive production for Disney, its reported budget of $200 million balloons to an estimated $362 million when accounting for marketing, which means in a world where cinemas are still pretty empty and you could pirate the film online the day of release, the chances of breaking even are slim.
However, Disney are too big to fail and the prospect of a franchise starring The Rock, might bring them back. If this was released in cinemas in a pre-pandemic world, it likely would have done very well in comparison to John Carter or The Lone Ranger. It's more marketable and a good pick for families. Perhaps one obstacle in their way is that it's "another Rock jungle movie" after two Jumanji movies released very recently also appealing to a family audience. COVID will likely take the fall for this film's failure and we won't truly know if it was going to be a smash hit. It hardly set the internet alight and buzz surrounding the film was quiet compared to Disney's other pandemic releases such as Cruella, which has already got a sequel in the works.
It turns out the answer to Disney's live-action franchise hunger, lied in their back catalogue of animated films. Films like Maleficent, Cruella or even the straight-up remakes like The Lion King are now go-to money makers for Disney and are receiving enough success for sequels to be put into development. The current upcoming release schedule for Disney includes such films as Pinocchio, Peter Pan and Wendy and The Little Mermaid, all recycled properties from Disney's past. A muted reception to Jungle Cruise might just mean that Disney will simply make all their animated films again in live-action (or CGI), with another tired Pirates of the Caribbean sequel on the side maybe.
However that's not mentioning that Disney now own so many properties, through its acquisition of Star Wars, Marvel and 20th Century Fox, they can make sequels, remakes, reboots and reimagining's forever and ever given the depth of their catalogue of intellectual properties. Maybe they can dig up something novel and throw a bunch of money at it, but the chances of another Pirates of the Caribbean coming along, something that really feels fresh, crowd-pleasing but not pandering, seems unlikely nowadays. Still. we have the original Gore Verbinski trilogy of film's to marvel at. Maybe a once in a generation film project of mammoth size.
All pictures courtesy of Disney