In a year in which The Emoji Movie is an apparently acceptable entity, and in which The Lego Batman Movie can deliver an exuberant – and surprisingly layered – hit, the former controversy of a blockbuster having been spawned from a theme park ride seems but a drop in the industrial ocean. Yet, when Captain Jack Sparrow, played by then cult-curiosity Johnny Depp, sailed into Port Royal, Jamaica, aboard his sinking ship – to the strum of Hans Zimmer’s self-plagiarised Gladiator score – he brought with him the origins of a three billion dollar franchise. The Curse of the Black Pearl was not only far from the flop predicted by forecasters, but was met with a degree of critical acclaim.
Based in the concept of reinvigorating the pirate genre with an infliction of the supernatural, enabled by new possibilities in CGI-wizardry, this first feature saw Depp’s pirate captain unite with Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner in a quest to rescue Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) from Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his damned crew aboard the noir-sailed and legendary Black Pearl. Whilst original director Gore Verbinski departed with the third, with Rob Marshall taking the fourth and the latest helmed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, producer Jerry Bruckheimer has overseen the whole swashbuckling affair ever since joining the project back in 2002. Also overseen, however, has been a decline in quality and an increasing whiff of the yo ho humdrums.
As is ever the case in such franchises – see Fast and Furious – ever more turgid returns have hardly found reflection at the box office. 2011’s On Strangers Tides may still hold the record for the most expensive production of all time (unadjusted for inflation), at the cost of a staggering $378.5m (Infinity War: ‘hold my beer’), but its $1bn gross saw the film top its predecessor, At World’s End, and gain a top three position in that year’s end rankings. Six years having now passed, the question floats: is the appetite still there?
The route to Salazar’s Revenge – Dead Men Tell No Tales across the Atlantic – has involved the navigation of distinctly choppy waters. Originally touted as the first of two sequels, intended to have been filmed back to back as with the second and third, the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film was first delayed by the decision of Marshall not to stay on, continuous scripting issues and a collapse in the faith of Disney executives in Depp’s bankability in the (literal) wake of The Lone Ranger’s box office fatality in 2013. Budgetary concerns have continued to haunt the project right through to the present and leading to its upcoming release, with hopes that the film might come with a smaller price tag of under $200m proving futile – The Hollywood Reporter suggesting a budget at least $30m higher. That Depp’s personal life has increasingly come to the fore alongside this, with negative reportage around his financial and lifestyle affairs, Disney may have fair reason to sweat. Note also that, last year, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to another Depp-fronted £1bn hit to be released exactly six years after its forebear, lost millions.
What, then, lies ahead? The two big-name returners to the franchise, having sat out the last, may attract interest and the appeal of Depp’s Keith Richards-inspired Captain remains tangible, but is it enough? Much may rely on the film’s early reception. Currently buzzing in the ether is the notion that Salazar’s Revenge will tonally recall the fun and heart that made the original a success, whilst teased have been hints of a positive response from early test screenings. Of course, cynics might justifiably be wary of the source of such rumours. Indeed, Depp’s recent surprise appearance in Disneyland Paris seems to be a move instigated by a desperation to replace bubbling negativity with positive promotion. With news outlets currently full of reports of hackers now attempting to blackmail Disney with the threat of a premature online release – a deeply ironic display of piracy – upbeat spins are becoming a vital commodity in the film’s marketing. Whereas Dame Judi Dench’s cameo in Stranger Tides came as a jovial surprise, for instance, observe the recent circulation of posters selling the appearance of Sir Paul McCartney in the upcoming release. Anything to boost appeal.
Though another billion dollar boomer seems perhaps unlikely, and it remains to be seen how Salazar’s Revenge will fare in the long run, tracking indicators are suggesting a strong opening weekend for the film at the domestic box office. Davy Jones’ locker seemingly avoided, the audible sounds of Depp and Disney’s sighs of relief may yet be heard above the roaring waves and billowing winds of the Caribbean ahoy.