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Sink or Swim: Disney’s Last Chance to Reinvent the Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise | Op-Ed

Remember Pirates of the Caribbean? Well it’s still around, and has apparently made boatloads of money for Disney. According to some reports, $4.5 billion worth!

The first film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl essentially brought back the swashbuckling genre from the depths of Hollywood Hell, and spawned an excellent trilogy (that I adore), and two more additions to the series.

  • There are a lot of ideas floating around on what the next Pirates film should be, with questions abounding as to whether or not Depp will return for the 6th installment, or whether or not the film will be a reboot, or if the new series will be all-female.

The film series that is credited with revitalizing the classic genre now needs to revitalize itself if it wants to persist.

Where better to look for inspiration than the movies on which Pirates is based?


In Short: The Pirates series needs to reinvent itself in one way or another to breathe life back into the series, if not the genre.

Older pirate films, upon which the modern series has modeled itself, made use of several tropes, but always had two key pillars: A core relationship dynamic, and social commentary.

  • The original Pirates trilogy had the first in spades, but lacked the latter, while the last two films lacked both.

For the series to navigate past its current hurdles, it needs to go back to basics.  


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The History

The first Pirates trilogy borrowed extensively from the old swashbuckling films of yore.

These films were escapist fantasies of talented people doing daring things. There was almost always someone swinging from a rope with a shout of “What Ho!” before kicking someone off a ledge.

  • Coming from a strong written tradition, in the bleakness of The Depression, through the Second World War, and even into the Cold War, these movies were outlets of excitement and derring-do.
  • The genre lasted throughout the silent film era, but began to run aground in the 50s with the rise in popularity of the noir, and changes in audience tastes.
  • That is not to say that the genre died that early, as there where several successful films into the 1950s, but it slowly lost ground (water?) as Cold War cynicism and science fiction became more popular with audiences.
  • Since then, entries to the field have been few and far between, leaving many to see it as a dead genre, which is really a shame. The genre was always full of colourful characters, optimistic, witty, and just plain fun.

Key Elements

The Pirates series pulls from many popular tropes from the genre: Romance found aboard a ship? Check. Lovable rogues? Check. Flashy costumes, humour, and elaborate set pieces? All checked. Pirates who turn out to be not so bad in the face of an oppressive state? Check.

Errol Flynn’s debonair persona and proud demeanour can be seen in Bloom’s Will Turner, and the fire and sense of purpose in Maureen O’Hara’s turn as “Spitfire” Stevens in Against All Flags is echoed in Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, particularly in the second and third films.

But there are two key elements that give these classic films a sense of purpose:

  1. Core relationships
  2. Allegory

Even though we might remember the humour or the set design more acutely, what truly gave these films purpose was their use of effective character dynamics or allegory, usually both.

  • Sea Hawk, for example, was both a compelling romance and a criticism of Nazi Germany at the outbreak of the Second World War; something that the Guardian discusses here.
  • The Crimson Pirate, despite having tongue-firmly-in-cheek, is also easily seen as a critique of imperialism, with the climax centering around the locals of an island engaging in an armed revolt against the governor.
  • The swashbuckling Adventures of Robin Hood, though not set on a ship, is perhaps one of the most well known films of the genre, and is chock-full of allegory and social commentary. In addition to being a visual spectacle, The Adventures of Robin Hood was a critique of racial injustice, class divides, and deer (Seriously. They eat a lot of deer).

Best Mates

Dynamic and effective characters were found afloat in the first three Pirates films, but the relationships in the later films seemed to sink.

  • Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley were the solid foundation that allowed Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush to be delightful side dishes along the way.
  • The inclusion of characters such as Tom Hollander’s Cutler Beckett, and even Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones helped the films mix the absurd and the mundane through the use of compelling characters with clear motivations.

The later films lost these grounding elements, instead doubling down on the more fantastical elements of the genre. This loss of heart was palpable, making the last two movies in the series feel stale and worn out.

How can we, the audience, believe in these characters if their relationships do not seem dynamic and reciprocal?

For the Pirates series to remain viable, it has to remember how key these relationships are in making a good movie, even if a thing as simple as the young romance of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann is seen in executive studios as “boring” in the face of the high-flying antics of the rest of the cast.


Dead Men Tell No Allegories

Although the use of core characters is strong in the Pirates series, political allegory is something that is lacking in the series, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Pirate films are escapist fantasy, and there is an argument to be made that the inclusion of allegory in these sorts of films defeats the purpose.

I don’t think that’s accurate. Film has always had allegory, especially in the more escapist genres such as fantasy and sci-fi.

  • Star Wars and Star Trek are both critiques of modern society. Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are likewise parallel tales to the authors’ own experiences through the First World War.

Allegory gives art a heightened sense of purpose, and works so that the art in question can last beyond the moment in which it is created. It is not necessary, but it certainly helps.

To give credit where credit is due, the movies do tackle some social issues.

  • Questions of morality are frequently discussed, and there is an argument to be made that there is some level of relevance to the story of the American Revolution (though this reading is a bit too contrived for my taste).

That being said, the films do not really explore or provide any meaningful commentary on these issues, instead choosing only to briefly mention their existence.

When the films lost their soul, due to the departure of the narrative away from Bloom and Knightley’s characters in the last two sequels, the lack of a more political message meant that there was nothing guiding the series creatively.


There is, however, one glaring exception to this trend in the series: Tom Hollander’s Cutler Beckett.

Cutler Beckett is an anomaly in the series in quite a few ways. In the second movie, Dead Man’s Chest, we spent quite a bit of time with this character.

  • He represents the East India Company, not himself (like Elizabeth Swann) or the British Government (like Commodore Norrington) and is an unapologetic imperialist, and a slave trader.
  • He also does not reject the fantastical elements of the world, but chooses instead to exterminate them, “filling in the edges of the map” as it were.
  • He was a foil not to the eccentric pirates, but to the more relatable and down to earth Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.

Dead Man’s Chest makes a point to frame him as evil from the get go, introduced in pouring rain and breaking up the wedding of Turner and Swann (how dare he). And he spends the rest of the film not only as a very effective villain, but also as counterpoint to our heroes.

  • Where Turner and Swann are accepting of various peoples, Beckett represses them.
  • Where Jack Sparrow has a moral code, Beckett has none.
  • Where our heroes care about others, Beckett cares only for his ambitions.

The politics of such a character are not lost on the film, with Beckett being the representative of an oppressive and cruel regime.

The messaging is lost come the third film, however, with Beckett being replaced as the principal antagonist by Davy Jones, and the focus shifting to the interplay between the pirates and away from the Beckett-Turner-Swann story.

What could have been a great commentary on the nature of authority and a critique of homogeneity instead falls by the wayside.


The Series Needs to Take a Stand, or Walk the Plank

Disney being Disney means that pushing for cultural commentary is difficult, but it is not impossible. Disney has made a token effort to pretend to be more “woke”, but it really isn’t all that convincing.

  • The time period of the Pirates series is rife with opportunities to include political commentary in a family friendly way that does not go against the Disney brand, and even helps their image.

In an era of colonialism, it is easy to make commentary on race relations, like The Adventures of Robin Hood, or critique the patriarchy such as in Against All Flags, or even just mock genre tropes like Muppets Treasure Island (but you know… better).

The film committing to taking a stand on some social issue would enrich the movie and make it not only a more compelling watch, but a more compelling re-watch in the era of the streaming service.

We both know that there’s plenty of things happening in the world right now, good and bad (a lot of which you can find right here on this site!).

Would The Adventures of Robin Hood not have been a marquee film in American history without its connection between its antagonists and racial purity? Would The Masters of Ballantrae have had a more lasting impact if it committed to its roughly anti-elite themes? I believe the answer to those questions is yes.


The Final Word:

Making movies is a complicated business, and trying to resurrect a dying series in a largely dead genre only adds to the difficulty.

  • Pirates of the Caribbean has been very successful at learning from both the successes and failures of the works that came before it, and now should be no exception.

A stable core relationship keeps the series sailing smoothly, and where it flounders social commentary ensures that the films have a clear direction.

Whether Disney wants a part 6 or to reboot the series altogether, they will have a hard time if they continue to focus on the fluff inherent to the genre while ignoring the core concepts that kept these films afloat for so many years.  


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