Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Year of Release: 2011
Date Viewed: May 19th, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Johnny Depp is back (as if there was any doubt) as Captain Jack Sparrow in the fourth installment of the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This adventure sails familiar waters while bringing along some new crewmates including new a director; Rob Marshall. Borrowing from Tim Powers' novel titled "On Stranger Tides", returning screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio turned in a script that is half original and half adaptation; one of several new directions for the series. In comparison to where it has sailed before, On Stranger Tides amends some of the past problems while allowing others to linger. Most importantly though, it doesn't forget why it exists: to deliver the fun and unpredictable thrills one expects to see in a summer blockbuster.
Picking up a short time after At Worlds' End left off, shipless and crewless Jack Sparrow travels to London in search of the pirate who had been impersonating him around town. The impostor turns out to be a former love interest named Angelica (Penelope Cruz). The ruse was a way to recruit unsuspecting townspeople to join the crew of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane) whom Angelica claims is her father. The mission is to locate the fabled Fountain of Youth. Jack is tricked into serving onboard and now has to contend with his problematic feelings for Angelica while staying below the radar of Blackbeard's sword.
But there are other parties hoping to find the fountain first. Jack's first mate Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) barters to assist former rival turned navy privateer Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) with his own expedition while also avoiding the hangman's noose. Motivated by the belief that the fountain is an abomination against religion, the Spanish army also join the race. Whoever gets there first will impact a destiny over life and death. Some will die before reaching the destination.
On Stranger Tides feels more like a spinoff than a sequel and that's a good thing. In previous offerings, the writers often seemed too captive in the mindset that everything has to be bigger and better than it was before. What ended up happening was the plot bit off more than could be chewed which resulted in an unsatisfying meal. Except for the fun factor, nearly everything is scaled back from the bar that had been set prior. By allowing more room for the film to breathe, the Pirates universe remains in a comfortably ambiguous state while the characters have more freedom to grow. Jack Sparrow is still the clumsy nomad that we all know and love. But this time, he demonstrates capability to be the voice of reason when the time calls for it. Hector Barbossa's tweener role is given a new dimension from the unseen history of losing his flagship Black Pearl and his leg during a fateful voyage.
Ian McShane's depiction of Blackbeard is a very loose depiction of the real life counterpart. Lacking the intimidating presence of Davy Jones and the charisma of Barbossa, the character is at his most interesting when utilizing the knowledge of magic and voodoo. His flagship the Queen Anne's Revenge is powered by a magical sword that controls both the steering and direction. The voodoo is an invaluable tool in keeping the slaves serving under him bonded by fear. It's nice to see a legend become reimagined for the Disney universe, but the real memorable villains are the dangerous mermaids that inhabit the waters around the fountain's location. In a justifiably lengthy scene, the mermaids live up to their storied reputation by seducing a scapegoat group of live pirate bait only to attack with ferociousness when the prey is at their most vulnerable. It's one of the darkest and most exciting moments in the studio's long history.
The stale romantic subplot of Will and Elizabeth Turner has been wisely discarded and replaced with.....an almost equally stale romantic subplot. One of the mermaids is captured as part of the ritual for utilizing the fountain's powers. While I'm on the subject, let me say that I like how the rituals in this series grow in ridiculousness each time. It's a good running joke. The only human that shows pity to the mythical captive is a missionary who is mesmerized by her beauty amongst the unique constitution. She returns the fondness because he seems to have a different aura than anyone else. It's a refreshing angle to see at first but fails to grow beyond its novelty concept. This might be the only Pirates film that would have benefited from a longer running time if that came to be.
The good news is that the movie makes the most of its reduced length. The story starts off at a quick pace and stays that way to the end. In terms of action sequences, On Stranger Tides is the most satisfying set offered so far. From the early carriage chase through London to the swordfight showdown at the fountain; the movie never stops being fun from a spectator's viewpoint. For those with a story-first mindset, the experience depends on the strength of fascination with mythological themes and how far they're willing to accept the "Point A to Point B" style of narrative. I'd say that should be expected from the onset because a pirate's life was rarely any more than that.
On Stranger Tides was my first summer thrill ride of the season and I'm happy to state that it's one that I really enjoyed. Fans should not fear climbing aboard.