Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Movie Review

Captain Jack Sparrow inadvertently became a Disney icon back in 2003. Johnny Depp’s interpretation of the rogue pirate scared several Disney execs when the visited the set, but the box office returns for Curse of the Black Pearl assuaged their fears and started what would become a multi-billion dollar franchise for Walt Disney Pictures.

Pirates was never intended to be a trilogy. Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007) only came into being after Black Pearl raked in $654 million worldwide. The second and third installments earned $1.07 billion and $963.4 million, respectively. And while critics dismissed two and three as overlong and bloated, fans continued to flock to theaters and pirate fever lived on with the addition of Captain Jack and company to Disneyland attractions and merchandising.

Do audiences still have a desire for Pirates movies? Do they still want to see Captain Jack Sparrow battle and talk his way out of sticky situations? Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides sets out to find that answer; and the result is a mixed bag. While the film is a lot of fun, has some great action sequences, and plenty of Captain Jack doing what he does best, I felt as if there was something missing.

On Stranger Tides has a much easier to follow story than At World’s End in that it’s a basic quest movie. Captain Jack and other set out to find the Fountain of Youth and hit several bumps in the road (ocean) along the way. And while this is fine and the story works what I felt was missing was the love story component that really helped to drive the first three films forward.

Why is this important? It’s important because Jack needs non-pirates to interact with so that we the audience can also connect with Jack. We saw Jack in the first three films through the eyes of Will and Elizabeth; he was goofy, silly, and skilled at what he did, but at the same time he inspired awe due to the many things he was able to do. Will and Elizabeth were the characters audiences could empathize with, while we all wanted to be like Jack.

On Stranger Tides gives us Jack as the main character, and it’s hard to connect with him as an empathetic hero. He’s still fun to watch, but it feels more like he’s a character in a live Pirates show at Disneyland; lots of action and fun dialogue but not a lot of substance.

After a slow opening sequence, Tides gains momentum with a slick chase through the streets of London. Then it’s only five to ten minutes between action sequences for the remainder of the film, which helps to mask the simplistic plot line being utilized this time around. It’s nice to have a plot that’s easier to follow than the one in At World’s End with five or six sub-plots to follow.

But action sequences do not a solid film make (as Transformers 2 taught us), and while all the spectacle is amazing and exciting to watch, the lack of a strong story and relatable characters does become apparent quite quickly.

I did like Ian McShane as Blackbeard, and Penelope Cruz as his daughter, Angelica; both are fitting additions to the franchise. Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa seems wasted her as well as Kevin McNally’s return as Gibbs. I do wish they had brought back some of Jack’s other crew members and even Pintel and Ragetti (the heavyset pirate and the one with the wooden eye) would have been nice to see.

What really helped to set this outing apart from the others was the addition of mermaids. This particular sequence was refreshing and brought new life to the film when it needed it most. Clearly pirate movies have to follow a particular formula and have specific elements (ships, cannons, sword fights, etc.) so it’s nice when new mythical elements get added into the mix to give the characters something new to do.

Director Rob Marshall does a decent job keeping it all together. The director, who replaced Gore Verbinski who directed the first three, has never helmed a project of this magnitude before; his previous projects include the musicals Chicago and Nine. Perhaps it’s the new director’s vision that is off-putting here. We’re so used to the style of Verbinski’s Pirates universe that seeing the world he helped bring to the screen presented by another filmmaker makes for more of a challenge to the audiences expectations.

While On Stranger Tides may be a weaker entry in the Pirates franchise, I don’t think that it’s dead in the water (pun intended). Unlike Scream 4, which should be the final film of that series, Pirates has the opportunity to redeem itself since there are hundreds of new and exciting adventures that can be explored and played with. Even Bond and Indiana Jones delivered less-than-stellar entries and we still beg for more (though I don’t think that there is anyone else who could fill Johnny Depp’s shoes and step into the role of Captain Jack Sparrow a la Bond).

As always the score is fantastic. Hans Zimmer does an excellent job delivering plenty of pulse-pounding music to the film, and the addition of Spanish guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela helps add a new flavor to the mix.

With a fifth entry already scripted and delivered to Disney, Depp wants to take his time and not rush things, which is what happened with parts two and three. There is no doubt in my mind that this movie won’t open big and crush the competition. Pirates movies are critic proof; and that’s the way it should be.

Speaking of critics… Many critics have referred to this movie as a “cash grab.” I found this statement rather bizarre. Aren’t all Hollywood movies “cash grabs”? I seriously doubt studios make films like this, Thor, or Fast Five out of the goodness of their hearts; they’re out to make money! It’s called show business for a reason, after all.

Now, that being said, no matter what I said above (yes, I’m telling you to ignore everything I just wrote), I do recommend you see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. For everything that doesn’t quite work this time around it’s still well worth seeing and enjoying with an audience. And it does look pretty good in 3D.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opens May 20, 2011!

What did you think of the movie? What is your favorite movie in the series? Leave a comment and let us know!

[Check out David’d review of Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides]