Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The public reaction to the two previous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, were decidedly mixed, though that didn’t stop them each from earning a bazillion dollars. Fans didn’t care for the darker tone, the confusing interlocking of the story, and especially the bloated running times. It feels like Disney’s uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer must have taken notes from the sequel backlash and they amounted to: “Less of everything.” Welcome to less plot, less character, less involvement, and far less entertainment. Welcome to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

It’s been a few years since the non-world-ending events of At World’s End, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been in London putting a new crew together. Except, it’s a Sparrow imposter. Turns out it’s Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former lover of Jack’s who woud still like to settle some scores. She and her father, the feared pirate captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), force Sparrow to lead them to the Fountain of Youth. Apparently, Jack at one point had the map. King George II (a delightfully hammy Richard Griffiths in one of the film’s best scenes) is in a race against the Spanish crown. The English monarch hires Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Sparrow’s occasional enemy and ally, to find the fountain as well. It’s a race to see who can benefit from eternal youth first because, apparently, no one can share a source of water. Second grade teachers nationwide are very disappointed, Disney.

The entire enterprise just lies there on the screen, devoid of all energy or danger. The entire picture is just so shockingly inert, lazy, phoned in from every angle, missing any resonance of magic. Rob Marshall was the wrong man to be tapped as the new director of this series. Marshall has a fine eye for visuals, but the man couldn’t stage an action sequence to save his life. The Oscar-nominated director of musicals like Chicago and Nine stages his action sequences like dance sequences, which on paper don’t sound too far off. That’s until you realize action needs to incorporate story, location, build in tension, create organic obstacles, and be easy to follow. The action sequences in On Stranger Tides aren’t outlandish enough. It’s all so dull, a sword fight here a sword fight there. Short of a mermaid attack sequence, there’s no excitement to be found onscreen. That is disastrous for a franchise that has built a reputation for its anarchic, wild action and storylines. Marshall’s action angles and editing don’t communicate urgency. There’s no mood to these set pieces. The editing feels like it’s always catching up, always too late, needing a myriad of trims. Action cinema has been lambasted when it’s hyper edited and the audience cannot see what is happening; On Stranger Tides is not edited enough. One of the reasons these half-baked action sequences can never get going is because they always seem to be starting and stopping with the lackadaisical editing, always a step behind. The shots linger when they shouldn’t. The ingredients are there for a tasty meal but the chef (Marshall, screenwriters) doesn’t know what to do. The musical score by Hans Zimmer tries very hard to compensate and rattle the audience, compelling them to think what is transpiring on screen is exhilarating. It is not, and the music is just loud and annoying.

One of the chief criticisms of the two Pirates sequels were that they were overstuffed with storylines, characters, setups, and were just far too convoluted and confusing for their own good. So with On Stranger Tides we get a simplified, pared down one-off movie. Much of the film is just characters walking in circles and, likewise, talking in circles. Motivations are flimsy. The dialogue is stilted; Sparrow’s malapropisms and one-liners feeling sloppy (“I agree with the missionary’s position,” he quips. Groan). The entire premise is to get to the Fountain of Youth, and then they get there and, well, very little happens. The characters will talk about little, walk a few feet, talk about little more, and this process repeats. Barbossa should be an interesting foil, going from fop to pirate by film’s end, and yet his every appearance in the movie feels like when the next-door neighbor appears on a TV sitcom. It’s an intrusion meant to remind you that you, the audience, like this character, even if they don’t serve any point in the story. The plot lacks any twists and turns, ultimately having every competing force converge on the Fountain of Youth at exactly the same time for a slapdash climax that involves more lackluster sword fighting, just like all the other sequences. On Stranger Tides is a full half-hour shorter than the third movie, and yet it still feels like an eternity at two hours and seventeen minutes because it spends so much time doing so little.

At least the other three Pirates movies found clever ways to mingle their sci-fi mythology into an old-fashioned Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. With On Stranger Tides, the sci-fi fantasy elements are just as underdeveloped as the characters. The Fountain of Youth is another of those magic do-hickeys that involve gathering magic tokens and blah blah blah, mermaid tears, silver chalices. Hey, if you wanted to drink up some mermaid tears, have them watch 2009’s Oscar-winning best documentary, The Cove. That ought to do it (a scene driving the mermaids into nets oddly reminded me of The Cove). Blackbeard and Angelica have a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll, which is highly effective, and yet this plot device is nearly forgotten for the entire film. There is no clever application of this unique device. Blackbeard has a magic sword that makes ships come alive. Why? How? It’s just another magical Macguffin, like Jack’s compass. Man-eating mermaid temptresses is an interesting idea, and a great way to squeeze in a lot of obfuscated nudity in a Disney film for teen boys who have not discovered the Internet. Too bad the mermaids are confined to one scene, albeit the highpoint of an otherwise bad film. Their feeding frenzy is the only moment in the film that channels that high-flying sense of verve that made the original so memorable. Don’t even get me started on the fishy romance presented between the captive mermaid (played with all the acting capability of a French perfume model) and a missionary (Sam Claflin). The whole experience feels like a shambled, draggy, inarticulate rip-off of Last Crusade, complete with a climactic drink from a magic chalice. I appreciate Marshall’s emphasis on practical special effects but if these are the results then bring back the previous sequels’ CGI vomitorium. This franchise feels like every ounce of energy and danger has been squeezed out of it.

So does that means that this Pirates venture is more character-based now that it has jettisoned side characters and complex plots? Fat chance. The problem is that Jack Sparrow is not a good lead protagonist. He’s not meant to be a classic good guy. He’s a libertine, somebody who makes selfish choices but will revert to do something proper when his conscience nags him enough. Sparrow is more of the dashing rogue at best. Does anyone remember how he was going to trick doomed men into signing their souls to Davy Jones? He also needs a foil, a striaghtman to bounce off of. I almost miss the wooden performance of Orlando Bloom. Without a do-gooding striaghtman, Jack Sparrow plays like a man adrift, searching for his groove. Unfortunately, Sparrow never finds it in this vehicle, which just asks him to go through motions and mannerisms. Blackbeard makes for one very bland villain. McShane (TV’s Deadwood) can glower and chew scenery with the best of them, but his baddie never seems too menacing. He burns one guy alive and threatens to kill his own daughter in order to keep Jack in line. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t even compare after the previous films included a monstrous ship captain who would readily slice prisoners’ throats and a British bureaucrat who hanged an eight-year-old before the freaking opening credits. Blackbeard, in contrast, just comes off like a crusty old man in need of a shave.

The film’s biggest addition was bringing in Jack’s former flame Angelica, a woman he robbed of her virtue and personally betrayed. But is there any tension? No, because Jack and Angelica don’t have any old feelings for one another they rehash (oh how I was even pleading for a trope like that), and the characters don’t really feel any antagonism either. Sure they will parry and threaten one another, but it’s so devoid of danger or tension or interest. This is no screwball romance. They feel like a couple that can’t be bothered working up any notable feelings toward one another. Therefore, all their shared scenes, and there are many, sink the film’s flow. Their bickering should bring some sparks. She should be exciting; she’s the daughter of a notorious pirate, she was going to be a nun until Jack Sparrow came sailing into her life. She should be sore. She should be angry. She should be a lot of things that ultimately the character is not. Cruz (Nine, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) doesn’t come across as an equal or love interest, she just feels like an annoying sidekick, harping on “Yack.” At one point, Jack tells her, “If you had a sister and a dog, I would take the dog.” When she’s got a personality like this, I’d agree.

Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd) is obviously a comic gift and his Sparrow character will go down in the ages as one of the most universally beloved figures in cinema history. Everyone adores this character, a loveable scoundrel. But that doesn’t mean the screenwriters can just strand him in a crummy story with nothing to do. Depp will always be enjoyable when he puts on his Captain Jack eye liner and does that funky, swishy walk of his, but even he feels like he’s phoning this one in. He realizes that his character is trapped in a sodden adventure that offers little to do as a character and an actor.

I never thought I would say this, but On Stranger Tides makes me positively reevaluate the other Pirates sequels (I admit to being one of the few critics who liked Dead Man’s Chest a good deal). If this is what a simplified Pirates of the Caribbean film gets you, bring me back the messy, maddening plots of the previous films. Bring me back the scope, the danger, the clever mingling of genre elements, the adventure, the sizzle, the anarchy, and bring me back director Gore Verbinsky. Marshall has no feel for this material or how best to serve story. I never expected a movie with this kind of budget to be so lifeless. It all just sits there on screen, expecting the pieces to come together through ardent wishful thinking. On Stranger Tides suffers not because it strips away some of the excess and convolution that plagued the other films, it suffers because it gives no reason for its existence. It does not enrich the characters, the Pirates universe, or provide a rip-roaring story. Obviously, the film exists to line the coffers of Disney. It may earn plenty of booty this summer, but this is no way to rejuvenate a sinking franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on June 29, 2011, in 2011 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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