It’s a cinematic rule of thumb: the further into a series, the worse the film. There are a lot of reasons for this but the primary is that the first film in a series always introduces the characters, the world they inhabit, and the basic tension between them. In the Pirates of the Caribbean series, we first met Johnny Depp’s memorable Captain Jack Sparrow in The Curse of the Black Pearl, and it was a delightful film, a fun amusement park ride even more entertaining than the eponymous Disneyland ride upon which it was based.
Then came Dead Man’s Chest which was mediocre but still enjoyable in that it let us revisit with Captain Sparrow, Orlando Bloom as the rough and ready blacksmith Will Turner and Kiera Knightly as the lovely Elizabeth Swann. With more than a bit of hubris, director Gore Verbinski filmed Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, the third installment, simultaneously, and it showed. The third installment was a chaotic, incomprehensible mess and even the addition of popular action star Yun-Fat Chow as Captain Sao Feng failed to redeem this dismal, poorly performing sequel.
Indeed, Verbinski quit after the first three Pirates films and part four, On Stranger Tides, is directed by Rob Marshall. There are also significant casting changes: Depp is back as Sparrow, but Bloom and Knightly are both notably absent, the latter replaced by the less talented actor Penelope Cruz, who plays Angelica, daughter of dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
The good news? I enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides much more than I expected. There’s a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of storyline, an almost complete lack of the incomprehensible supernatural scenes in At World’s End, and a narrative that actually made sense as the film progressed.
The story is a race to the fabled Fountain of Youth, as originally sought by Spaniard Ponce De Leon two hundred years prior to the narrative time of the film. Sparrow (Depp) ends up shanghaid as part of Blackbeard’s crew, while recurring foil Captain Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush) heads up the English privateer’s vessel, guided by Gibbs (Kevin McNally). The Spanish, meanwhile, have also discovered critical clues to the whereabouts of the Fountain and have sent three ships to the New World, seeking to arrive first.
On Stranger Tides is a long film, over two hours, and it drags in spots as the early scenes seem unrelated to the main story but instead an excuse to slip in a few more entertaining action sequences, but it’s definitely better then the second and third films and if you’re a fan of the original you’ll enjoy this fourth installment.
One of the most interesting characters in the film is Philip (Sam Claflin), who is a Bible-toting Christian in the band of cutthroats that comprise Blackbeard’s crew. First introduced as the sole survivor of a disaster, he’s tied to the mast, to the puzzlement of Sparrow. There’s a cynical bent to his character in the film, however, and at times Philip is the naive optimist who is surprised and exploited by his crewmates and especially Blackbeard.
Still, it’s his blossoming love for the trapped mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) that propels the story forward in a way that the more lackluster romance between Sparrow and Angelica (Cruze) definitely doesn’t. In fact, I felt that Angelica had no charisma at all on screen and stood out as one of the most boring and uninteresting characters in the film. While this is consistent with earlier films — in The Curse of the Black Pearl the relationship between Turner and Swann that form the romantic heart of the movie, Sparrow’s not involved there either — it’s still surprising that the primary romance was between the naive fool Philip and the precious child-woman Syrena, not the lead characters.
Philip (Sam Claflin) and Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) from “On Stranger Tides”
As with many action films, there’s a sense that On Stranger Tides is a series of action scenes loosely stitched together by a flimsy storyline, but after the fast-paced excitement of the first film in the series, I felt that On Stranger Tides actually had too few action sequences and a bit too much narrative exposition. The film really gets started with a 4-5 minute sequence where Sparrow tricks his way into the British high court to intervene on behalf of Briggs, who is to be sentenced and hung as a pirate. This includes a memorable chase scene through Victorian London that was greatly entertaining and had the twists we’ve come to expect from the flamboyant Captain Jack in these films.
The chase ends in a pub called, appropriately enough, The Captain’s Daughter, where we first meet Angelica and enjoy her and Sparrow standing back-to-back while fighting a platoon of British regulars in the back room, wine and beer barrels rolling everywhere. This is exactly the kind of scene that doesn’t work in 3D, however: 3D works best when there’s slower action or slow pans across scenery, not fast cuts and rapid action which quickly become blurry and confusing.
During the swordfight there is some witty banter between the two that, unfortunately, rarely surfaces again. In fact, Angelica and Jack sound more like a tired old couple that regret their breakup in college, but are resigned to their separate lives and more than willing to ignore the small flame they have for the other. It’s uninspired, as is the vapid dialog between Philip and Syrena.
There’s also a sense where characters and creatures are introduced to the storyline but then not utilized to their full potential, most notable in the disfigured zombie officers on Blackbeard’s ship. Zombies? Sounds like a fruitful path for story twists and turns, but they are treated like just more hands on deck, not supernatural beings.
The film’s treatment of mermaids was much better, presenting these lethal beauties as the sirens of the sea, not the neutered mermaids we’ve gotten used to from Ariel and her ilke in The Little Mermaid. These mermaids are scary and represent the two-edged sword of female sexuality too: get close, but don’t get too close, or you’ll not live to tell the tale.
Marshall neatly sidestepped the nudity issue with the mermaids too, with their scaly body going up almost to their shoulders: they had the suggestion of breasts, but nothing that might cause a youngster to turn away with embarrassment during the closeups. Still, the film sports a PG-13 rating and there are still intense action scenes, though less than in earlier films: if your children are comfortable with modern cinematic conventions and visuals, I think they’ll be fine with this remarkably non-violent pirate epic.
On Stranger Tides wasn’t as entertaining as The Curse of the Black Pearl but it’s a good recovery film – a sort of “reboot” in Hollywood parlance — from the dismal collapsing mess that was the second and third films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It’s a classic no-thought-required tentpole movie that will help hasten summer, and it’s the rare filmgoer who won’t enjoy it.