Monday, June 13, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

As quoted in my 2007 review of Pirates 3: “I almost hope that we don’t see another Pirates flick. These delightful characters have given us enough.” Yes, and now they’ve given us too much. I had held on to some small hope that one more film might correct the mistakes of Pirates 3, but whatever curse befell that picture can apparently not be undone. Pirates 2 ended with the perfect setup for a brilliant finale, and the writers blew it (I’m trying to let it go... really). Pirates 4: On Stranger Tides is more fun than its predecessor, but so what? It doesn’t offer quite enough of anything to justify itself, and it still falls about 20,000 leagues shy of recapturing the infectious fun of the original.

Johnny Depp returns as fan-favorite Captain Jack Sparrow, who is on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth. Also on the trail is Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in the Royal Navy. Angelica (Penélope Cruz), one of Sparrow’s old lovers, joins Sparrow in the search. Along the way, our heroes swashbuckle their way through battles of all sorts, zombies, mermaids, and several encounters with Blackbeard (Ian McShane): “the pirate all pirates fear.”

On Stranger Tides has a few things going for it. For starters, Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush are consistently lovable, even though Rush’s Barbossa is a bit too respectable this time. Seeing him in a military uniform with soldiers under his command never felt right. Penélope Cruz and Johnny Depp have great chemistry, more than Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom ever had, though we don’t know much of anything about Angelica and Sparrow’s past. The film’s visuals impress, especially the mermaids. While the mermaids look more like supermodels from the waist up than actual sea creatures, their introductory scene strikes the right balance of sex appeal and creepiness. One mermaid named Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) falls for a young missionary, Philip Swift (Sam Claflin). I think the writers were trying to fill the void left by Will and Elizabeth (Bloom and Knightly), though the romance between the mermaid and the missionary has even less appeal.

Blackbeard is supposedly the pirate all pirates fear, though he isn’t half as frightening as Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) from Pirates 2 and 3. Added to that, he doesn’t really have a black beard. What’s that about? He has some supernatural abilities, but they aren’t ever accounted for. The film’s color palette is dark, with most scenes unfolding at night or in murky conditions under an overcast sky. It baffles me that with so many bright, vivid colors in the Caribbean, this film unfolds largely in various shades of black and gray.

Then, there’s the Fountain of Youth. The entrance to the Fountain is pretty cool, but the Fountain itself looks less like an ancient source of mystical power and more like a movie set. Also, the Fountain comes with some ridiculous fine print. Making it to the Fountain isn’t enough; you have to bring two specific chalices and a mermaid’s tear. The lifting of the Aztec Curse in the first Pirates film made sense within the confines of the story, but this Fountain of Youth business is just one plot contrivance too many. I reject the notion that you could struggle your whole life looking for the Fountain of Youth only to learn upon arrival that you should have brought Ponce de León’s old chalices and a mermaid’s tear.

My wife and I re-watched the original Pirates when we got home from seeing On Stranger Tides. I wanted to know if I had romanticized the original too much. Was it really as good as I remembered it being? The original film isn’t perfect (it’s a bit too long and convoluted, I’d say), but it has a unique blend of adventure and quirky humor. Depp’s Sparrow was a character of his own invention in the first film, as the screenwriters had a traditional pirate in mind when they wrote the part, and the writers have never quite figured out how to properly write the character. This fourth installment ends with an obvious setup for Pirates 5, but I’m officially pirated out. The adventure, the fun, the wit, and the cleverness have mostly dried up. It’s always fun spending two more hours with Captain Jack, but you’d be better off re-visiting The Curse of the Black Pearl than setting sail for Stranger Tides.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

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

This isn’t as dark as Pirates 2 or 3, though it’s scarier than the original. The action isn’t too violent or sinister, though it might frighten young children. The sensuality and innuendo aren’t much to worry about.

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