by Steve Habrat
Is it me or are the Pirates of the Caribbean films starting to become almost an obligation to go see? The first two films in the series were fun high-seas adventure flicks that came equipped with a whole lot of action and reckless swashbuckling. But then came the bloated and incomprehensible third entry in the franchise and it became as clear as those Caribbean waters that this film franchise wasn’t entirely sure what to actually do with itself. For almost three hours, it ran in a circle and concealed the fact it had no major plotline by setting up countless side storylines. The promise of a better fourth entry that trimmed out the fat and stayed on one major course sounded like a real treat! Plus, it guaranteed Johnny Deep’s boozy punk rock pirate Jack Sparrow would get more screen time and not have to share it with the perpetually-doing-a-period-piece-movie Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, the phrase “you can have too much of a good thing” applies to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, as once again the franchise has no real idea where to go or how to deliver a satisfying payoff. The film is all build up and then fizzles due to clutter. This is not to say it’s an awful movie but it sure appears like this was just a quick paycheck for everyone involved with it.
The glaring problem with On Stranger Tides is the script that it has to work with. Sure, the story has been trimmed down, but it drops the ball when it comes to the effortless humor and whimsy that the other entries executed with outstanding ease. Perhaps it’s the fault of new director Rob Marshall, who is inexperienced with Hollywood blockbusters, as he is the man who was behind the glittery musicals Nine and Chicago. He poorly paces the film to the point where he seems blatantly eager to rocket into one action sequence after another. While the action sequences are fine, the Pirates of the Caribbean films could always pride themselves on their clever and hilarious banter.
The storyline this time around is pretty straightforward: Jack Sparrow is suckered into finding the Fountain of Youth for the dread Blackbeard (Played by Ian McShane). He is fooled at the hands of Blackbeard’s feisty daughter, Angelica (Played by the sexy Penelope Cruz), while he is traipsing through Britain. The British Royal Army also wants the Fountain of Youth and dispatches the dreaded Captain Barbossa, a role reprised by the stellar Geoffrey Rush, to find it before Sparrow. On top of that, a mysterious group of Spanish Conquistadors also wants possession of eternal youth.
Sounds simple enough, right? It is for the most part. The film still takes outlandish detours and introduces new side characters that are there to fill out a two hour run time. The film looks nice and the 3D will wow the kiddies. Yet the film has an abnormally flat personality. It does not have hints of the spark that made the original film so damn fun. It shows brief glimpses of intrigue mostly when the film runs aground and the characters take to dry land. It also contains a bone chilling sequence that features a hair-raising encounter with mermaids. I will commend the film on it’s top notch directing and the infusion of new supernatural elements into the film. We get zombies this time around that is a brilliant tribute to I Walked With a Zombie and White Zombie.
Even if the film appears to be phoned in, the performances from Depp, McShane, and Rush are all in top form. They seem to be having a great deal of fun playing these grubby, rum-guzzling pirates. Rush steals the show as the grotesque and vengeful Barbossa. McShane is the embodiment of evil as the glaring and mystifying Blackbeard. McShane is the best villain of the series since Barbossa intimidated his way through the first film. Unfortunately, director Marshall didn’t seem to really know what to do with Cruz’s Angelica. She seems there only to provide a pretty face juxtaposed with the breathtaking backgrounds. It’s a shame, really, due to her talent that she so gracefully posses.
Then we have Mr. Depp as the infamous Jack Sparrow. He embodies the role like no one else could and it’s a thrill to see him back doing it. It’s funny because we get to see Johnny Depp playing Johnny Depp. He’s still the king of getting himself into sticky situations, deadpanning his way out of them, only to find himself in a worse predicament than before. Sadly, he lacks the effortless charm he once exuded. He’s a victim of poor writing and the film banks on the audience’s laughs just at his presence alone. He does muster up a few classic one-liners and reactions, but it makes me wish that he wasn’t front and center in the spot light. He needs another character to anchor his lofty persona.
The film also suffers from an unsatisfying payoff that seems like mere set up rather than unambiguous conclusion. The film raises more questions than it answers and you’ll see what I mean when you take yourself to see it. Characters seem present only to create unnecessary conflict. The ending is especially guilty of this crime, as at least one group battling for the Fountain seems to have no purpose there at all. To trim them out would have been a wise choice by Marshall. The film leaves us with the sinking feeling the Disney is certainly going to churn out more of these. I hope they don’t bog it down in needless muddle and meaningless characters.
No matter what I say, everyone will flock to see it and many will dash to the store come the holidays to pick up the Blu-ray and DVD. After all, it is your obligation! If there are to be more of these, I ask that Disney pay closer attention to the script and keep things light. It’s what gave them a winner in the first place. Hell, bring back those seriously awesome mermaids! They have solid characters to work with and a fresh slate to draw on. But On Stranger Tides feels oddly pedestrian when it could have benefitted from much more of the promised strangeness.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.