[25 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
How much do you like Johnny Depp? A lot? Take him or leave him? Are you so hopelessly devoted that you can’t imagine a single day without looking at his lithe features and sighing, briefly? Well, whatever the amount of affection you have for the far-above-the-A-lister, said tolerances will be deftly tested by the latest unnecessary installment in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, subtitled On Stranger Tides. Featuring the eccentric chameleon… and little else from the original trilogy, this cynical cash grab throws a lot of new faces and ideas at us, hoping we will latch onto their novelty and newness. Instead, they remind us once again of what a complete anomaly the first film truly was, and how casting and star power can’t repair a premise stretched to the very limits of believability…or viewer tolerance.
Once again, Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) is in trouble with the British crown. This time around, he is wanted for trying to command a crew for his newest vessel and venture - except, he really isn’t trying to do that. Indeed, someone is using the pirate’s good/bad name against him. When the Spanish discover the secret to finding the Fountain of Youth, the King commands Jack for help. He wants to put his main mariner, for former cutthroat now Commander Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) in charge of beating their European rivals to the find. Eventually, Jack discovers who has been soiling his reputation - it is former lover, and the daughter of infamous buccaneer Blackbeard (Ian McShane), Angelica (Penelope Cruz). She too is after Ponce De Leon’s discovery and wants to locate it. With help from her men and a couple of zombified ship slaves, she will retrieve a mermaid, capture a single tear, and use it for the Fountain’s life extending ritual.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a major misstep. It’s a confusing crash and burn. How does something like this happen? How does a movie make certified presences like McShane and Rush into rudimentary place holders? All throughout the original triptych, Barbossa is positioned as one wicked bad ass. Here, he’s a fop in a bad make-up job. As for Blackbeard, he is considered the pirate that even pirates fear, and yet it’s his magic powers, more than his menace, that get the plot’s attention. It’s almost as if the screenwriters - long time series scribes Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot - realized they needed some mystical element ala Davy Jones or the first installment’s skeletons and came up with…a sword that can move and manipulate objects. How lame is that? Similarly, the narrative also needed a love interest, a noble male, a salty sea dog, and some aquatic horrors. Enter an out of her element Cruz, a spineless missionary, a minstrel named Scrum, and mermaids. Yeesh.
Nothing gels here. Depp dandies around, making his mark whenever he is onscreen, while the rest of the cast struggle to find the right rhythm. Even former members of the Pirates party - Rush and Kevin McNally’s Mr. Gibbs - seem stranded with nothing significant to do. Everything revolves around the nonsensical Fountain, which now apparently requires an arcane ritual and several sacred talismans in order to provide…well, it certainly isn’t youth, or everlasting life. Instead, we get some idiocy about stealing another person’s years (as well as those year’s they may have spent being/do good…huh?) and the race to claim this claptrap. With said storyline comes something the Pirates movies never really suffered from before - over-familiarity. Indeed, didn’t Indiana Jones have to do something similar in order to say his ornery dad from death?
That means it’s all up to Depp to carry things, and it’s a credit to his amazing star power that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is not a 100% total disaster. Even during the dumbest bits - Sparrow and Angelica sparing over a massive pub cooking spit - his line deliver and onscreen charisma keep things from going completely array. He gets the movie’s only legitimately funny line (something about agreeing with the missionary’s “position”) and sells even the silliest contrivances with controlled dedication. Why he never won an Oscar for this role is still shocking, considering his female co-star has one for a decidedly lesser turn. Indeed, Depp could show up in a scene and read a laundry list of lunkheaded excuses and international audiences will line up in droves (shockingly, Stranger Tides has earned over a billion dollars worldwide - that’s “billion” with a “b”).
As for other movie mea culpas, the producers should be punished for putting Rob Marshall in charge of this ocean-bound chum. With an undeserved Academy Award nomination under his belt, his previous creative canon wouldn’t inspire a second callback, let alone a hiring for a massive motion picture popcorn blockbuster undertaking. He doesn’t understand action, can’t get his comedic beats right, and loses the plot when placed up against necessities like scope and special effects. During the mermaid sequence, a dark and dreamy forbearer of evils to come, things are so gloomy and glum that we don’t feel fear. Instead, we’re squinting to see what’s going on. Similarly, the mandatory use of 3D provides unintentionally laugh out loud moments on one’s home theater that only work within said gimmickry.
Still, money talks and critical BS walks - and as we speak, the powers that be are already plotting the pair of sequels that will be (allegedly) shot simultaneously. Indeed, perhaps the worst element here is the blatant disregard for wrapping things up. Instead, several important plot threads dangle like the dreads under Sparrow’s leather cap, all left up in the air so the next installments have something to trade on. Imagine a fourth Matrix movie with Neo somehow surviving the Machine City, hooking up with a new crew of Zion believers, and heading off to battle a lesser version of Agent Smith’s brother - that’s how disconnected On Stranger Tides feels.
Granted, few felt the series would survive the initial idea, since Disney’s track record with films based on their theme park attractions - The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion - was weak at best. When the House of Mouse hit with its love letter to high seas larceny, it wasn’t about to let said cash cow slide. As long as Depp is around to salvage its shoddy repetitiveness, no one in the company has reason to worry. Audiences, on the other hand, should be very afraid indeed of these latest Pirates.