Well, here it is. It’s been four years since the last film based on Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction at Disneyland. The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was somewhat of a genius motion picture. When it arrived on screen in 2003, it was one of the most original movies we’d seen in a long time: sort of a throwback to the old forgotten swashbucklers like Captain Blood, yet with a supernatural twist to it. IT proved to be such a success that they made two more: Dead Man’s Chest in 2006, and At World’s End in 2007. They were far less original and drew much more on huge fantasy epics like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings than 1930s pirate movies. At some point the story got lost in itself and became almost entirely incoherent. Still, I have to admit, I enjoyed all three immensely and had hoped the third would be the final installment in the series. Nevertheless I wasn’t entirely hopeless about On Stranger Tides. Well, it is certainly a more coherent film than 2 and 3, but it’s also rather bland and boring. If the previous films did one thing well it’s entertain, and On Stranger Tides somehow falls short of this.
It begins in London where good ol’ Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is set on rescuing his friend Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the gallows. As you can imagine, all of this leads to an elaborate chase scene that, while familiar, is still fun. Then comes Penelope Cruz into all of this and here the film begins to sag a bit. Apparently she is Blackbeard’s (Ian McShane) daughter, and the two of them are out to find Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Fortunately Jack has had some experience with that endeavor and they soon recruit him to their crew. Meanwhile, a now one-legged Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) has become a privateer for the British Royal Navy and is also in pursuit of the Fountain, although something seems mysterious about his motivations. Again, as in all previous Pirates films, it involves several groups searching for the same thing. And, like before, Captain Jack switches sides at every bend of the road, making things as diplomatic as possible.
The first problem here is of course that it’s too much like the first three to be very interesting and second the characters are not all that exciting any more. Captain Jack is becoming very tired of this role and so is Barbosa. Both of them act as if they’re just going through the motion. Jack says strange things and walks funny and Barbosa makes long rambling pirates’ pep-talk speeches, but it’s all so used by now. The bad guy here is unfortunately Blackbeard, who just isn’t at all evil or strange enough to be enjoyable. In the first film, Barbosa was the villain in all his glory. In the second and third it was a most delightful fellow named Davey Jones who wore an octopus on his face. Now it’s just Blackbeard, who doesn’t have much of a beard and isn’t ferocious at all. He’s just another pirate.
Unfortunately, the most interesting part of the movie is the relationship between a young minister held captive by the pirates and a captured mermaid whose tears the pirates must harvest in order to make the Fountain work. Despite being absolutely pointless and unnecessary to the story, it does add a layer of gentleness to an otherwise cold and dying pirate yarn. Of all the Pirates movies so far, this one has the most extra baggage. There’s a group of Spaniards who are also after the Fountain who keep showing up and causing trouble for no reason, and then there’s a rather unbelievable romance between Jack and Penelope Cruz, and then there’s the fact that the Black Pearl is trapped in a bottle and through all of this I thought, “I don’t care any more.” Really, I’m tired of watching all of these pirates who have strayed well beyond the boundaries of the Caribbean fight and bicker with each other. It’s boring.
The film also unfortunately gets stuck in the rut of many fantasy films today and relies on pointless magic to tell its story. Take Blackbeard’s ship. For some reason he can manipulate with his sword the ropes and rigging on the masts of his vessel to wrap around sailors’ legs and string them up to the yard arm. How did we get to this point? In the first movie, the supernatural events were well-contained and made sense, now they’re just random sight gags without direction or finality. One thing the third film had going for it, although it was dumb and badly written, was that it was exciting. On Stranger Tides just isn’t. The characters have gone stale and the tricks are all used up. At this point, the Pirates of the Caribbean series has run out of steam. The only way it will ever get back on its feet is if Disney gets some courage and fires Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the screenwriters who have got us to this dismal end. Their ideas are spent and they aren’t coming back. Now, let’s all go home and pray that a fifth movie isn’t coming any time soon.
Walt Disney Pictures Presents a Jerry Bruckheimer production
Cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, Sam Claflin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths.
Directed by Rob Marshall.