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Film Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011; Directed by Rob Marshall)

So, lovely, what's with the Pilgrim hat? Off to a witch-burning, are we?

The first thing to say about the fourth film in Disney’s and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is that its subtitle is rather misleading. These tides are no stranger than those of the previous films; indeed, they are far less so. Although the earlier Pirates sequels were both hugely successful commercial blockbusters, the maximal scope and ludicrous, nigh-operatic visual ambition of director Gore Verbinski’s creations became numbing by the time our pirate heroes reached World’s End. So much frantic CG spectacle desensitized audiences, taking them away from the macabre charms of the skeletal-pirate effects of The Curse of the Black Pearl and greatly diluted what audiences responded to most about that film: its irreverent, genre-busting wit and, of course, Johnny Depp’s sashaying trickster, Captain Jack Sparrow.

Still, Verbinski’s mad-scientist approach is almost missed at times in On Stranger Tides, a perfectly entertaining but vaguely workmanlike piece from Rob Marshall, the Broadway-first director who made Chicago and Nine. Marshall always has the camera in the right place, sure enough, but there is a dearth of imaginative leaps of fantastic imagery; nothing here reaches the surreal heights of the Davy Jones’ locker sequence in the last film of the original trilogy.

Additionally, the supernatural mythology of the earlier films, which could become baroque in its unexplained elaboration, is dialed down considerably this time, reduced to sideshows like a ship-controlling sword, hulking “zombiefied” officers, some sea-harpy mermaids, and full-sized ships magically imprisoned in bottles. The returning cast members are also reduced to just three (or four if you count another Keith Richards cameo): Depp, obviously (without whom, etc., etc.), Kevin McNally’s stalwart sidekick Gibbs, and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, who still makes the screenplay’s grimy/lucid piratespeak sing like no one else can. Rush’s interactions with Depp sparkle with a little extra brightness, for whatever reason; more even than Orlando Bloom’s dull and reedy Will Turner, Barbossa was the unpredictable Sparrow’s unshakable foil, and we’re again reminded why.

The new cast members are revealed in the midst of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s forking plot, which has also reduced the confusing byzantine network of double-crosses and scene-changes that characterized the previous excessive sequels. As promised at the end of At World’s End, Sparrow is hell-bent on the trail of the Fountain of Youth, which also greatly interests two of the great European empires, England and Spain, as well as various piratical ne’er-do-wells. Snatched up by royal redcoats and tasked by King George II (a hilarious, over-the-top small role for Richard Griffiths) to guide a British expedition to find the Fountain, Sparrow seems more intrigued by the royal desserts than royal decrees, especially when his rival Barbossa (who has lost the Black Pearl in mysterious circumstances) turns up with a wooden leg and a foppish powder wig to lead the King’s quest. Sparrow, in his characteristically improvisational fashion, escapes the palace and the redcoats in a wonderfully silly Buster-Keaton-esque chase sequence which features another great cameo that I wouldn’t dream of ruining for you.

Eventually, through convolutions that aren’t terribly simple nor strictly important to summarize, Sparrow finds himself throwing in with a former jilted Spanish lover of his (Penelope Cruz in her enigmatically-awkward English-language mode), who may or may not also be the daughter of the feared pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, who has a great entrance but mostly plays catch-up after that). It’s been prophecized (boo on prophecies!) that Blackbeard is to be killed soon by a one-legged man (guess who), so he needs the Fountain of Youth to survive. Sparrow’s reasons for finding it are (and remain) unexplained, and the Spanish have a very Catholic motivation for tracking it down, it turns out.

To the Orpheum, my good man. 'Tis nearly curtain time!

Though the plot does hold together a mite better than in many movies of this type, it’s still mostly an excuse for the big action set-pieces. Besides the carriage-centric London chase, there’s also an pleased-to-meet-ya swordfight between Sparrow and Cruz’s Angelica, who’s disguised as Sparrow (after an obvious Marx Brothers mirror bit reference, it turns into a near-carbon copy of the first duel between Depp and Bloom in The Black Pearl). A nighttime mermaid-hunting outing in a rocky cove later on (a mermaid tear is required for the obscure life-giving ritual at the Fountain of Youth) conjures up some of the creepy thrills that we should expect from this series at its best, even if it leads to an superfluous love-and-forgiveness subplot between the captured mermaid (moon-eyed Spanish/French actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and a hunky dullard of a missionary (Sam Claflin). There’s some more battling and such during the climax at the Fountain (the set is a near-dead-ringer for the treasure hoard that is the setting for the final battle in The Black Pearl), and a final cup-sipping decision between Sparrow, Angelica, and Blackbeard that simultaneously rips off the battle of wits between Westley and Vizzini in The Princes Bride and the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

For all of its half-cooked subplots and echoes of both its own history and that of its genre, On Stranger Tides does feature its share of fleeting delights. Depp’s Cap’n Jack can’t really surprise anybody anymore, but he remains an inspired creation by an actor who has long privileged oddball physicality in his characters. I could spend a happy-enough two hours just watching Depp bob his head like a demented bird, twist his ringed fingers as he speaks, or run with a combination of franticness and prissiness. Rush is also enjoyable, McShane has his moments, and the underrated Stephen Graham provides comic relief with his patented compact proletarian clowning.

But as I said, Marshall’s vision is a simpler one than Verbinski’s, mostly relying on his production design team to make things look good (and they dutifully do) and eschewing the ludicrous leaps into epic fancy that characterized the first three Pirates films. This, combined with the innumerable borrowings and homages to The Curse of the Black Pearl and other films, leads to a strong enough but distinctly uninspired result.

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