Film Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush and Ian Mc

Score: 2/4

I don’t know if any film series has had quite the same journey that of Pirates of the Caribbean. Starting off as a film based on a theme park ride, nobody thought the first film had a snowball’s chance in hell of being a good movie. Little did we know that the combination of a solid script, the imaginative hiring of Gore Verbinski (fresh off the only good J-Horror remake, The Ring), and a solid cast including Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush hamming it up and playing off an unlikely straight man in Orlando Bloom would bring us one of the great adventure movies of at least the past decade. The film brought the swashbuckling fun of an Errol Flynn classic and updated it with a good supernatural story and solid CG that was in service to the story.

The second two films pretty much threw everything that worked out the window and turned into a cash grab. The CG took over the spotlight of the films and Disney inexplicably decided to stretch a story that should’ve been in a single 120-150 minute movie over two movies totaling just over FIVE AND A HALF HOURS. Character development somehow found a way to take a backseat to the effects and mugging for the camera. The story was far more convoluted than it needed to be and turned into a complete waste of my time outside of the scene on the beach of crabs in Davy Jones’ Locker that would have been right at home in a Terry Gilliam movie. After the third film barely made its budget back at the box office, geekdom hoped that would be the end of the Pirates movies. The story finally ended and we all hoped the series was thankfully over.

Disney apparently ran out of ideas for live action movies after The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and decided to blow off the mothballs and bring the franchise back. To their credit, Disney and new director Rob Marshall brought the series back to its roots by telling the complete story in a single film with a reasonable running time and made the CG take a backseat to the overall story. Would that be enough to make me as an audience member love Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and bring me back to the series? Unfortunately not.

The setup in a nutshell is that the Spanish, English and pirates are all looking for the Fountain of Youth. You’d think that would be a simple enough thing to put together, but the first 30-45 minutes become increasingly convoluted in establishing everyone’s motives before finally getting on the road. Amusingly enough, that part of the film is wrapped up with a chase scene involving British soldiers doing their best Keystone Cops impression while chasing Captain Jack Sparrow through the streets of London on foot and on top of various carriages and carts, which incidentally happens to be easily the highlight of the film. It was just as convoluted as the first 30 minutes, but was far more entertaining. With the film moving on to Blackbeard, killer mermaids, jungles, snakes, sword fights, and chases, you’d think that this would be a highly entertaining film. Unfortunately, it comes across mostly as just mediocre.

I’ll just get out of the way that I’m not the biggest fan of Rob Marshall. Outside of the Mr. Cellophane number in Chicago, I unequivocally hate that film. It’s mean spirited and gives you exactly one character to actually like, and he’s barely in the film. Memoirs of a Geisha was pretty to look at, but I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve seen it. Throw in a Disney version of Annie that couldn’t hold a candle to the original and stinker reviews of Nine, and you see why his name didn’t exactly make me hopeful for this to be a good movie. I have to give him some props, though, and say that the action sequences were were well shot and choreographed. I think the biggest issue of this movie is that it’s just a rehash for the sake of making it.

It’s still very fair to compare Johnny Depp to Errol Flynn and his swashbuckling adventures of the 30’s and 40’s. Unfortunately, we’re not living in that time anymore. There wasn’t anyone comparable to Flynn back then because there weren’t as many relatively high budget action/adventure movies being made of that quality. Now, Depp is one of at least a dozen stars who have the capability to draw in a crowd of both men and women. If you are going to bring back a character or archetype over and over, you have to find something interesting to do with him, and that simply didn’t happen in this movie. Steven Soderberg learned this lesson the hard way when he made Ocean’s Twelve. Eleven introduced us to these guys who are cooler than the other side of the pillow, but didn’t do anything interesting in the second film. Having learned from that mistake, he gave the crew something to unite over, specifically someone attacking and hurting Ruben. That ends up being the biggest fault of On Stranger Tides. The filmmakers just didn’t give me any reason to care that what’s left of the gang is back together.

Other issues I have with the movie are Hans Zimmers liberal…BORROWING of the score from The Fountain once everyone finally gets to the fountain of youth and the missionary who starts out as a very promising straight man to the insanity going on around him who turn into a fool falling in love with a mermaid and inadvertently becomes an “As you wish” short of completely becoming Westly.

I know I’m being hard on this movie, but it’s because I’d like to see another good Pirates movie, and it hasn’t happened yet. Yes, it’s absolutely the best sequel by a long shot, but that statement is pretty much the definition of the term damning with faint praise. Four movies into this franchise, I’m beginning to think that the first film was a fluke in the same way that Casablanca was just another movie in the studio system that chanced upon the perfect storm of cast, writer and crew. Oh, one more thing. Don’t waste your money on the 3D. It’s pretty much non-existant in this film except for a few poorly executed swords point out of the screen. If you’re a completionist and HAVE to see this movie, catch it at a matinee at the very best.

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Dave Minkus

Dave is located in Denver, CO and can also be found occasionally sullying various podcasts who don't know better than to invite him on.

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