Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Review)

The fourth installment in Disney’s blockbuster franchise warrants neither lavish praise nor aggressive criticism; it merely exists, with a sort of blandness and mediocrity that is saved by some great performances. 

Whether you like it or not, Disney’s runaway Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is here to stay.  The second film grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, one of only seven films ever to do so.  The newest installment, On Stranger Tides, opened to a $350 million weekend worldwide.  There will be more Pirates movies.  Hopefully they get more exciting and entertaining than this.

On Stranger Tides starts with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) impersonating a judge before getting discovered and leading the city guards on a massive carriage chase through London.  He has been hearing of someone impersonating him and gathering a crew, and goes on a hunt to find out who is taking his fame.  It turns out to be none other than an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), whom he abandoned on the day of their wedding.  Carrying over from the last scene of At World’s End, Jack is hunting for the Fountain of Youth.  Also joining the chase is the Spanish Armada, Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is sailing on behalf of the British Navy and intends to find and kill Blackbeard on account of Blackbeard’s theft of Barbossa’s right leg and the Black Pearl.  Jack soon finds himself prisoner of Blackbeard and, curiously, of Angelica, who is apparently Blackbeard’s daughter.  For the fountain to work, the tear of a mermaid and two magical chalices are required, which sends each of the factions scrambling to recover the components first.

At this point, the scriptwriters seem to be throwing every idea that pops into their head when it comes to writing the script.  Zombies!  Mermaids!  Blackbeard’s ship is controlled magically by his sword and has a flamethrower!  The bizarre ideas keep coming and coming, and though things are certainly dialed back from the utter chaos that was the plots of the Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, the storyline here is still kind of messy.  Recognition must be given, however, for trimming away the pointless fat that was the characters of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.  At the very least, the film moves a bit more briskly with them gone.

Disney’s choice for captain of this voyage was strange if nothing else.  Gore Verbinski, who directed the previous three films, was not on board this time.  Instead Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago  and Memoirs of a Geisha, helms On Stranger Tides.  I cannot imagine why Marshall was chosen for this picture.  The man has a certain flair to his filmmaking, but he’s hardly the safest of bets for Disney’s biggest franchise.  Unfortunately, Marshall’s lack of experience in action pictures shows here, and the talent he showed with his previous films doesn’t carry over.  On Stranger Tides sports some rather limp action and lazy direction, and simply is not very exciting most of the time.  There’s a decent amount of action, but Marshall does not have a handle on how to thrill his audience through the action sequences.  Even the choreography was lacking, and the production design was somewhat weak to boot.

In spite of that, one sequence that stood out as the film’s best was the mermaid sequence.  The film takes time to establish that these mermaids might be beautiful, but it is all a ruse to drag sailors to their doom and eat them alive.  Knowing this prior to seeing the mermaids,  it lends a beauty and tension to the scene.  Coupled with the best new piece of the film’s soundtrack, the buildup to the sequences where the mermaids alarming transform into much more fearsome creatures is haunting.  Another of my favorite sequences was on a ship perched on the edge of a cliff.  To keep the teetering ship from falling, the treasure on the ship must stay exactly balanced.  Naturally, Barbossa and Jack both arrive at the ship looking for the chalices, which leads to the two of them comically running around and tossing treasure, simultaneously fighting over the chalices and trying to keep the ship balanced so they don’t both die.

The soaring high point of On Stranger Tides is the performances from the main ensemble.  Johnny Depp’s (Captain) Jack Sparrow is still entertaining to watch, and surprisingly has some excellent chemistry with Penelope Cruz’s Angelica.  Their constant double-crossing and flirting were some of the more consistently enjoyable parts of the picture.  Ian McShane is everything one could have hoped for as Blackbeard.  McShane is a perfect fit for the most feared pirate of the Caribbean, and he slips into the role with a menace that sidesteps the silliness of the rest of the cast.  As a polar opposite to the eccentric protagonists, he really works.  As good as all of them were, however, Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa stole the show.  Barbossa has always been my favorite character in the Pirates franchise, and after cleansing his palate in last years excellent King’s Speech, Rush clearly has a blast returning to his role.

On Stranger Tides has moments of what made the original so great; an eccentric and slightly macabre sense of humor coupled with fun characters and exciting action (although the latter is missing).  It also deeps so frequently into mediocrity it makes it a bit of a tough sell, especially considering that this is the fourth film in a series that is already wearing out its welcome.  Rather than enriching the experience of the series, it’s quickly turning into a shameless cash grab, and the franchise needs new life breathed into it before it’s too late.

Score: **1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality, and innuendo.

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Posted on May 25, 2011, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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