An early sequence in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides showcases its best idea: two Captain Jack Sparrows. It seems awfully clever, at first, because Jack (Johnny Depp)—who made wearing mascara and mincing cool—is the reason anyone’s still watching Pirates movies (Orlando who?).
Jack, for one, seems well aware of this. Having heard that someone else is pretending to be him in order to recruit a crew, he sets out to reclaim his not-exactly-good name. Spotting the culprit in a dark-lit street, Jack pursues: the two dash about and fall over barrels, tumble and twirl, mimic each other’s gestures—until at last Jack confirms what he already knew. The imposter is Angelica (Penélope Cruz). She pulls off her captain’s cap and tosses her hair, then asks, just a little slyly, “Are you impressed?”
Indeed he is, as Jack is always impressed with himself. He’s less impressed with Angelica’s proposal, that he join her on an expedition to find the Fountain of Youth. It happens that such an expedition puts them in competition with Spanish King Ferdinand VI (Sebastian Armesto) and English King George II (Richard Griffiths), as well as Barbossa (currently captaining one of George’s ships, with a few mates returning from Jack’s own Black Pearl) and the notorious Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
As these too many plot strands accumulate, the initial cleverness of the two Jacks dissipates. Now you know, this latest installment in Disney’s profitable franchise is more of the same, with too many plot strands that only distract from the reason you’re watching.
To be fair, Jack’s antics do figure prominently in a few sequences designed for that purpose. In one, he spends long minutes preparing a Rube-Goldbergish set of stunts in order to escape from King George, as he proceeds to swing from a chandelier, leap across balconies and rooftops, and careen down the street on a series of carriages, while also making time to eat a cream puff he spots during the first moment of his captivity. In another, he inspires a mutiny aboard Blackbeard’s ship, then visibly appreciates the raucous and Pirates-theme-songed mayhem that follows. (At least some of this mayhem involves 3D swords thrusting at the camera, a strikingly unimaginative use of the technology.)
But too often, On Stranger Tides resorts to the multiplying actions that make it more like a theme park ride than a movie, filled with distractions and set on a course toward a treasure. Some of this course alludes to backstory: Jack’s first encounter with Angelica is not his firs, but instead, he has some time ago “corrupted” her and so instigated her desire for revenge, or maybe just a reunion. And Angelica’s relationship with Blackbeard is somewhat complicated: he believes her story that she’s his long-lost daughter, and it appears that she believes it too. When Jack doesn’t believe it, he’s briefly given to philosophizing about belief, noting how ultra-clever her lie seems: “You lied to me by telling the truth? That’s good!”
Such word-and-idea-play is characteristic of Depp’s Jack, and you’re buoyed by this moment, as he and Angelica seem at last to appreciate what they can do for each other. But too quickly, the film gives in to its lesser impulses, and so their refracting-mirroring of one another is dropped for another plot. And that would be the film’s primary gimmick, the mermaids.
The mermaids plot showcases Philip (Sam Claflin), a young and pretty missionary repeatedly abused by Blackbeard’s crew for proclaiming his love of God. Like Will Turner before him, Philip provides a perspective for viewers, seeing through Jack’s performance to know he’s really good, in spite of himself, and seeing straight to Blackbeard’s abject evil. So, both Philip and Jack’s faces reflect an appropriate horror when Blackbeard burns up a mutineer he means to use as a lesson on what not to do, suggesting they share a certain sense of morality. And so, Philip models for Jack behavior that’s at least a little right, when he tries to save a mermaid, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Firsbey), who’s being awfully abused by… you guessed it, Blackbeard.
This particular situation arises when Blackbeard directs his crew to capture a mermaid in order to use her tear during a ritual that must be enacted at the Fountain, when they get there. Syrena is one of many mermaids to choose from, appearing in the film as a kind of fishtailed school, flap-flapping as they arc over a rowboat full of sailors at night, frightening and fast. As Blackbeard looks on, anticipating the capture at whatever cost to his crew that might occur, Philip and Jack also watch from a distance, and are again struck by Blackbeard’s ugliness. When Philip stumbles upon Syrena some moments later, you see the rest of that plot in an instant: they’ll fall in love, and they’ll provide another distraction from Jack.