Mediocrity Washes Ashore in 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'

On Stranger Tides lacks the chemistry of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, in which the Jack-Elizabeth-Will triangle offered a rich foundation for the adventures.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Johnny Depp, Ian McShane, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally
Distributor: Disney
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2011-10-18

Every film franchise runs the risk of diminishing returns over time. Sure, a loyal fan base is nice, but can they sustain several movies over a period of several years? In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides sure, the film did well at the box office, but without two of the main characters (Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner), the series has become an "Adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow" affair that will have to rely more on spectacle than on the stories, if this movie is any indication.

As you've probably heard, On Stranger Tides, which is loosely based on a novel by the same name, features Sparrow on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. His journey is complicated by the return of a former lover, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and her father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back, but now he's a privateer in the service of King George, and he wants revenge against Blackbeard for the loss of his leg. Spanish explorers also seeking the Fountain play a wild card role, and mermaids and zombified pirates feature heavily in the mix during the second half of the film.

All of the Pirates of the Caribbean films have come up with creative ways to introduce Jack Sparrow during act one, and On Stranger Tides follows in their footsteps as a pirate we believe is him is dragged into court to face sentencing. Of course, it's not really Sparrow, but he has disguised himself as a judge to free his friend who is a victim of mistaken identity.

We soon learn there's another Sparrow impersonator, and Jack sets out to discover who it is. As the story gets rolling, we're treated to many exciting set pieces that unfortunately rely a bit too much on convenient deus ex machina moments, such as the introduction of Jack's father or a guard who happens to put down his pistol and sword where Jack can grab them, even though he is rushing to respond to an alert that a prisoner is on the loose. It's sloppy storytelling, and it sets the tone for acts two and three.

Jack's one-liners, which are a key part of his appeal, also fall a bit flat in various ways. For example, he's asked at one point how he ended up in a Spanish convent and he replies: I thought it was a brothel. Honest mistake." (Meh.) Much later in the film, he dives into the water as a lighthouse crumbles, and after the scene gives us the aftermath of other things that have been happening, he pops in and says: "Did everyone see that? Because I will not be doing it again." The timing there is off; he should have said the line much sooner.

There are a couple Sparrow lines that elicit a smile (said to Angelica: "If you had a sister and a dog, I would choose the dog."), but many of his punchlines tend to be limp. If Jack Sparrow is expected to carry these films moving forward, he'll need to do better than that.

The rest of the characters do their job, but the story is mediocre and the payoffs aren't hard to see coming. While the two earlier films, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, were met with mixed critical reactions, I enjoyed the attempt by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to craft more complex tales that didn't neatly fit into the summer movie mold. Unfortunately, On Stranger Tides isn't nearly as interesting, especially since the intriguing Will-Elizabeth-Jack triangle is now gone; Jack's interplay with Angelica is pedestrian in comparison. I also find Penelope Cruz irritating, which didn't help.

If the Pirates of the Caribbean series is going to continue, it will need a stronger cast of recurring characters for Jack to play off, along with adventures that don't tread well-known territory.

Moving on to the DVD, I received the Blu-ray+DVD combo pack for review, but I haven't yet moved into the world of high-def DVD, so I'm only looking at the standard-def disc here. In addition to the film, we have 3.5 minutes of bloopers and five one-minute animated LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean stories. Yup, that's it. The Blu-ray promises all that plus interactive content (whatever it is; there are no details on the back of the package) and audio commentary with director Rob Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca.


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