“Does this face look like it’s been to the Fountain of Youth?”
“Depends on the light.”
A two and a half hour movie based on a ride at Disneyland seemed like an iffy proposition back in 2003. The world wasn’t exactly lit on fire by The Country Bears or The Haunted Mansion. Yet, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl went on to become an insanely lucrative blockbuster and instantly embedded into the lexicon of modern pop culture. It was the kind of rousing, light-hearted adventure that hasn’t been made since the heyday of Indiana Jones. Just as Harrison Ford’s iconic fedora and bullwhip became a signature look so did Johnny Depp was his thick eyeliner, red bandana, and dreadlocks. Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow surprised everyone by defying expectations of what a swashbuckling hero should be. Studio execs were aghast when they viewed dailies of Depp playing Sparrow as an addled and effeminate rummy. But, the performance scored Depp his first Oscar nomination and Sparrow is one of the most popular characters in modern cinema.Naturally, Disney punched out two sequels in Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End, which were filmed back-to-back. Both pictures scored major box office, but were lambasted by critics for nonsensical storytelling. The conclusion of At Worlds End established Capt. Jack’s desire to find the mythical Fountain of Youth and set the course for the fourth film, On Stranger Tides. Never has a MacGuffin Device been more apropos. If anything needed rejuvenating, it was the Pirates franchise, which grew more excessive with each installment thanks to the presence of squid men, surreal netherworlds, and ancient sea goddesses. Disney seemingly took the criticism to heart and promised the next sequel would be streamlined. Then, the announcement came that the film would be shot in 3D and budgeted at $250 million. Yes, On Stranger Tides proves to be just as convoluted and ridiculous as the last two movies.
Jack Sparrow has made his way to London in order to rescue his first mate, Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally), from being executed for piracy. The good captain winds up meeting a corpulent King George II (Richard Griffiths) and put back onto the path of the Fountain. Next thing you know, he’s leading the king’s men on a rip-roaring chase through the cobbled streets on top of a series of carriages before bumping into Judi Dench and Keith Richards, who returns for a brief cameo as Jack’s father, Capt. Teague. Our hero is soon press ganged onto the crew of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a ship run by the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a feisty former flame of Sparrow’s. They too seek the Fountain of Youth. They aren’t the only ones. The Spanish are looking to follow in the footsteps of Ponce de Leon and are led by Oscar Jaenada, who looks like Prince after wandering off the set of Purple Rain. Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back once more as a privateer for the royal navy looking for revenge against Blackbeard for costing him the Black Pearl and his right leg.
Of course, no one can just bathe in the waters of the Fountain. It’s never that simple in aPirates movie. This is one of those treasure hunts where you have to find fifty other things to get the one thing you’re actually after. First, everyone needs to locate a pair of silver chalices then harvest the tears of a mermaid. Don’t expect these mermaids to be cute redheads singing duets with Rastafarian crabs. These mermaids are vicious temptresses who drag men to their watery deaths.
The preceding plot summary barely scratches the surface of On Stranger Tides. Even with a run time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, it’s actually the shortest in the series. Gore Verbinski steps away from the franchise and handed the directorial duties to Rob Marshall, who helmedChicago and Nine. Marshall’s experience with staging musicals allows him to choreograph elaborate set pieces with a showy finish. The opening carriage chase is the highlight of the film and it’s followed up with a fun sword fight between Jack Sparrow and an imposter. It’s a clash of cutlasses surely inspired by the Marx Brothers’ mirror routine from Duck Soup. The later action sequences don’t have the same spark. They become too repetitive with the climactic battle feeling like a re-hash of the Black Pearl climax.
The story moves forward in fits and spurts. Just when the movie hits a brisk pace, it grinds to a halt. The nonsensical narrative is anchored down by a never ending multitude of subplots and weak characters. With Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley gone, the filmmakers have replaced their insipid love story with one even more insipid between a young missionary (Sam Clafin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The dreaded Blackbeard becomes a thoroughly generic villain with Ian McShane given little to do, except growl and snarl. More ship worthy is Penelope Cruz, who is at her most beautiful as an arch-rival and love interest to Jack Sparrow. The two spend the entire movie alternately trying to kiss and kill one another. Cruz has far more chemistry with her leading man than Angelina Jolie did in The Tourist.
Speaking of Depp, remember when Jack Sparrow was the comic relief supporting character in the first film? He has become the focal point of Pirates, but the novelty has worn off with Depp relying on mere shtick. Jack Sparrow is a unique character and a gimmicky one by his very nature that cannot evolve. While Jack hasn’t changed, Capt. Barbossa has and winds up being the most intriguing character in Tides due to the amazing Geoffrey Rush. Painted in shades of gray, he cannot be pigeonholed into the role of hero or villain. Equipped with a peg leg, Barbossa is more pirate-y than ever, part-Long John Silver and part-Ahab. Like Ahab, he embarks on an unwavering path of vengeance against Blackbeard.
Zombie pirates and vampire mermaids, On Stranger Tides is as bloated and overblown as the sequels. The story doesn’t feel like it was written using a dartboard or mad libs. However, if you were one of the few who actually enjoyed Dead Man’s Chest or At Worlds End, the fourth picture will assuage your desire for swashbuckling on the high seas. Not that it matters. Pirates of the Caribbean is utterly critic-proof. People will flock to the theaters no matter how good or bad the movies are. On Stranger Tides opened in the U.S. to a box office take of over $90 million with international receipts at a staggering $256 million.
Rating: 4 out of 10