2 Stars out of 4
All aboard the (3D) ship in the less-than- stellar Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Producer Jerry Bruckenheimer, this time around, makes a few noticeable concessions: lowers the budget, trims the run time, and minimizes the fun. By the fourth time around we do not expect much, but what we get is mostly below the barrel.
It’s an A-list cast though, ye mateys! You have Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, and Penélope Cruz for starters. Suspect a few cameos too. They come and go very quickly, drenched in makeup, so you might miss their sails as they pass by. The cast is teemed with venerable British actors, except the film missed out on Ian McKellen. All of these fine actors know how to chew the scenery, applying mannerisms that reach for the heights of Long John Silver. Yes, this crew runs a tight ship. So what is the mutineer? The story.
Also, the script has got the scurvy. I think what has made the Pirates of the Caribbean series so successful is its humour. We all admire the sweeping narratives but it is the laughs that are the greatest accessory. Here, expect a wobbly story that becomes less and less funny as the story goes deeper and deeper. Our characters are on the hunt for “The Fountain of Youth”, and it is Pirates vs. Britain vs. Spain. Just like the old days.
You have Johnny Depp as the notorious Jack Sparrow. Sorry, “Captain” Jack Sparrow. Here Sparrow is more of a reluctant romantic, eager for adventure but timid towards his love life. He is now a Bogart with a compass, a man who could use some love though he might be too clever for it. Sparrow collaborates with lost lover Angelica (Cruz) as they race to The Fountain of Youth aboard her father’s, Blackbeard (McShane), ship The Queen Anne’s Revenge. It’s a bitter romance Sparrow and Angelica have. Instead of smooching, they pay heed to the PG rating with harmless, bickering banter. Nevertheless it is nice to see Jack’s sensitive side.
Don’t forget Captain Barbossa (Rush). With thicker makeup the former head of the Black Pearl leads the British onwards to The Fountain of Youth with the guidance of the reliable Gibbs (McNally). The Spanish are en route to this prize too, helmed by King Ferdinand VI. The story becomes less about seeking fortune and more a battle against Catholicism. Well, not quite.
This is mostly a retread back to dumb fun. But it barely makes that. This is the closest Pirates of the Caribbean to the actual Disneyland ride: it’s short-lived, grandiose, and meant for sight seeing. Unsurprisingly the film was directed by Rob Marshall who is known for his musical adaptations of Chicago and Nine. He has a great eye for sets, reducing the ironic wit of the script in exchange for a more edgy, expressionistic atmosphere. The sword fight sequences act like a broadway show gone to hell: clunky, disorganized, but a nice big set to stare at in the background.
The story is less exciting here. Not enough urgency to achieve The Fountain of Youth and the actors seem just here for the practice. The cast, ridden with older folk, is more a reunion – say – of the 1967 graduates of Davy Jones’ Locker. They are along for the ride like we are. But the story they are caught in is anchored. The magic is gone and the humour is – nicely put – walking the plank. But beyond these puns On Stranger Tides, actually based on the novel by Tim Powers, lacks energy after the first hour. There’s a lot to look at but not nearly enough to invest in.
Depp and Cruz do what they can. Surprisingly their rivalry/romance is enjoyable for each minute it is used. These two talents have the pluck to bring out the classic swashbuckling this series has been known for. It’s not so much a soft romance as it is a foray for each other’s hearts. Granted I am uncertain with Jack Sparrow being the central character, the voice of reason. Sparrow is better for his dramatic detachment who treats serious events with levity and wry wit. He’s always been the triumphant buccaneer of the films, but more of an antihero. A character always meant to walk off towards the gallows, not the sunset.
Hans Zimmer is back again composing the soundtrack that, we can all agree, is merely perfect. The whimsical, cadenced, and upbeat score is soon to surpass the brilliant one of John Williams’ Indiana Jones. If anything, one of the best parts of (and excuses to see) On Stranger Tides is for the music. It is just too enjoyable, creating a rhythm even though the script lacks one.
What you may find is after the introductions are made this installment is a sinking ship. About halfway to the finish line, Marshall pulls off a daringly dark and highly pulsating sequence involving an incursion of monstrous mermaids with gnashing teeth and carnivorous appetites that are – I highly doubt – inspired by Disney’s The Little Mermaid. That’s a scene that gets the energy level right.
The rest just does not work. The climax is rather ho-hum and when the ending suggested a sequel I had no feelings of excitement, only exhaustion. This is a series that has lost its oars and perhaps does not know it yet. Once again it is great to see this cast together, though they may have had more fun than we did. I am one who should like On Stranger Tides because I am – I admit readily – a big fan of this series. I find it sweeping, clever, and – while even dealing with Disney – fairly dark.
I saw On Stranger Tides in the bright and clean 2D. I still found the film’s look fetching. No swords in the screen invaded my space. Afterwards, I took a big gasp and left, disappointed and more nostalgic for the previous three. I realized that Jack said it best: “It’s not about the destination more that it is the journey.” True, no doubt.