Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA - PG-13 for sexual content, nudity, violence and some language
Running time: 137 min.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, Sam Clafin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths
Cameo: Judi Dench

Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Review published October 23, 2011

pirates of the caribbean 4: on stranger tides 2011More of a spin-off than a sequel, though still marketed as the latter, On Stranger Tides follows the adventures of one of the protagonists of the previous three films in the series, fan favorite Jack Sparrow (Depp, The Tourist).  In this entry, Sparrow ends up tagging along onto the great pirate Blackbeard's (McShane, Coraline) ship, 'Queen Anne's Revenge', along with Jack's former would-be flame (and Blackbeard's supposed daughter) Angelica (Cruz, Nine), in order to quest to the New World in order to find Ponce de Leon's fabled Fountain of Youth.  Meanwhile, Jack's old foe, Barbossa (Rush, The King's Speech), is following their trail, under the employ of avaricious King George (Griffiths, Order of the Phoenix).  Between Barbossa's army, Blackbeard and his creepy zombie crew, the competing Spanish Navy, and the alluring mermaid hordes along the way, things prove to be as fraught with danger for Jack as they ever have been.

Money is in the air when thinking of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, as Disney is loathe to give up a cash cow after the special effects-laden trilogy had run its mediocre-but-lucrative course.  But they know well enough that, even though he didn't start off as the series' main character, the true lynchpin of the series was the manically swishy performance by Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, and as long as they had him on board, after paying him a pirate's treasure trove to return, they could dispense with all of the other characters to still bring people to the theaters in droves.

Special effects and art design notwithstanding, the anchor to this sequel is the cast of solid character actors.  In full-blown caricature, Depp and Rush get to ham it up in as fun a way as we've become accustomed to, so there's little new there.  Cruz and McShane are the new additions.  Cruz is fine even though her intended role as the romantic vixen to spark fireworks between the leads never pans out sufficiently to merit her inclusion.  McShane stands out well enough as Blackbeard, looking as naturally menacing in the part as can be expected.  The supporting cast, as has been the custom for the series, is filled with either hunks, babes or actors with comedic talents, though it must be said that, even with the snarky Capt. Sparrow as the lead, it's not a particularly witty movie full of quotable lines or knee-slapping gags, which is a severe detriment in a film that plays up its comedy this much.  Stones' fans may be happy to see Keith Richards (At World's End), Depp's real-life inspiration for Capt. Jack Sparrow's speech and mannerisms, returning in a small role as Capt. Jack Sparrow's father, Captain Teague.

Out is Gore Verbinski, the director of the convoluted, plot-heavy first three films.  In is Rob Marshall (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago), who seems on a mission to dispense of most plotting in favor of a very basic quest story that nearly disappears for long set-piece stretches.  Whereas Verbinski's films were frantic, muddled, and without a coherent storyline, Marshall's entry feels like a rough draft of an idea that is stretched out beyond its capacity to entertain fully for its 2 hour and 17 minute running time.  What the script by Elliott and Rossio (Dead Man's Chest, Shrek), who very loosely rework a wholly unrelated pirate novel ("On Stranger Tides", naturally) from 1987 by Tim Powers, fills the time up with is a tedious romance between a goodly cleric named Philip (Clafin, United) and a sultry mermaid dubbed Serena (Berges-Frisbey, Meet the Elizabethz), the attempted extraction of one of her mythical tears, and some mumbo jumbo about maps and silver chalices from Ponce de Leon's ship that must be used in just the right way in order to effect the desired outcome at the Fountain.

As poor as the script is, and as lackluster the claustrophobic direction, what will likely mollify the fans is that the film is saturated with atmosphere, special effects, and the rousing but vastly overused Hans Zimmer (Sherlock Holmes, Angels & Demons) score almost without respite.  As the plot is barebones, it's quite easy to find oneself zoning completely out for long stretches of the film without losing track of what's going on during those sparse moments when something on screen begins to approach something akin to a new or interesting development.  About 90% of the film is quite dark or foggy, with only a smattering of shots able to bring out the lush, natural environs of Hawaii, where many of the exterior shots are photographed.  As much of the film is laden with costly CGI elements, the pervasive mist covers up for much of the lack of detail, while the actors are generally framed in close-ups during their few moments of dialogue. 

The film does deliver on action, but it's so cartoonish, so without rules, they fall far short of exhilaration.  For instance, there is a scene that has Jack Sparrow tied sitting with his back to a palm tree with thick rope.  Jack manages to escape by shimmying up the tall tree while still tied, and somehow he gets to the top of the tree without it ever being shown just how he manages to get around the large palm fronds.  From there he uses his weight to make the tree bend enough to catapult him from treetop to treetop, and swing around like Tarzan without any sense of danger.  And this is but one of a handful of similar scenes whereby Jack gets captured and manages to find a way out of it, as if the writers knew nothing else to do with the character except have him make grand escapes.  It's all so very over the top, while insulting to audiences hoping for something more than Saturday morning cartoons from filmmakers pumping $200 million into the budget of one of the most lucrative film series ever produced.

At this point in the series, we have little choice but to expect leftovers, shoehorning Sparrow and a villain du jour into the plot of an existing pirate novel's plot, determining to deliver eye-candy goods copiously mixed with one-facet characters performing slapstick during ample swordplay.  As with each entry, the actors and story basically reset back to how they started, with no real story arcs or character developments that drastically alter the series in substantial ways, no matter what form of cataclysmic events they may undergo in their quests.  It's perhaps the weakest entry in what is already an anemic series of films, meant mostly as a quick cash-in for a major studio rather than a way to impress any stalwart fans or gain new ones.  Like any amusement park ride, it's fun the first time around, but after the fourth time in the seat, we've seen what's there to be seen, strapped in because,  well, we keep hoping for a new surprise.  For a film about the Fountain of Youth, this one's certainly showing quite long in the tooth.

-- Preceded by Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2011 Vince Leo