The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has some parallels with the Matrix films: both have a strong first movie that could have stood on its own without sequels, both had a sequel that ended with a cliffhanger and both had 2nd and 3rd films that were disappointing and even convoluted. Unlike the Matrix franchise, Pirates’ 3rd film ended with a higher potential for another sequel, which is why On Stranger Tides debuted this weekend. I hated the 2nd and 3rd Pirates movies because most of it was boring, and the parts that weren’t boring didn’t make sense. With a new adventure and a mostly new cast of minor characters, I went into this thinking it could make up for the other sequels. So, did it? Well, yes and no.
On Stranger Tides starts sometimes after At World’s End, with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) trying to find a new ship and crew. He quickly discovers that an old flame (Penélope Cruz), who happens to be the daughter of the legendary and mystical Blackbeard (Ian McShane), is searching for the Fountain of Youth. It turns out the England and Spain are in a colonialist version of the Space Race to get to the Fountain first, and the English has chosen the ex-pirate-now-privateer Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) to lead the expedition.
This isn’t a bad film per se, but it is flawed. At times, very flawed. The first third or so of the film is just… dull. I mean, stuff happens, but it’s mostly a jumbled mess. There’s a exposition scene that features a King George that looks just like Hedonism-bot, but the scene also included Barbosa looking like a rotting wooden foppish statue. It’s explained later why he’s turned, but it’s jarring in the moment.The big chase scene at the beginning was an obvious throwback to the first film, but it went on for too long and was choreographed poorly. I had no idea what was happening from shot to shot, so I wasn’t really invested in the excitement. There’s also this creepy moment in the chase where Jack makes out with Judi Dench‘s neck. I’m not kidding, Dench is a noblewoman in a carriage, Jack jumps into her carriage and starts kissing her neck. It’s pretty creepy.
And that brings me to one of the oddest things about this movie… the enormous amount of sex. Well, not sex, but allusion to sex. Besides the Depp/Dench makeout session, Cruz’s Angelica flat out says Jack seduced and deflowered her before she could become a nun – they did it right in the convent. Jack even mentions how he thought she was too experiences to be a virgin. And the mermaids are just nymphomaniacs, apparently… although it’s hinted that they actually just want to eat the sailors instead of mating with them, which says a lot about how men saw women’s sexual cravings, so to speak. The other movies had some raunchiness in them, but this one is on another level. The point is, I saw so many young children in the theater. I would have hated to be sitting there in that awkward silence.
One of the great things about the first Pirates movie is that the stakes and rules are made clear pretty early on: Barbosa and his men need someone’s blood to make them human again. Sure, we don’t find out whose blood they need until later, but the basic premise is made clear. Here, it takes so long for them to get to the point (and the plot), but I couldn’t enjoy most of these early scenes. I understand wanting to keep the mystery, but I spent most of these early scenes shouting “Get on with it!” ALA The Holy Grail in my head.
The mermaid and the cleric’s storyline went on forever. It’s like the writers said, “Well, we finished the semi-bland love story from the first three films that audiences got tired of. What will we do for the 4th one?” “…Put in another love story?” “Perfect!” The problem is, too much time is spent on these characters and that affects the pacing, but not enough time is spent on them for us to believe their budding relationship. Considering they only have a handful of scenes together and the first one involved her and her kind trying to kill the crew, their relationship seemed odd, even forced. There are little details that don’t add up, like how the cleric knows the mermaid’s name. There’s also a moment towards the end of the movie where the mermaid aids Jack, but we never really know why.
I have to bring this up; they completely changed the character of Blackbeard. I don’t want to be a nit pick about historical correctness when we’re talking about a movie like this, but real Blackbeard was actually closer to Jack Sparrow in tactics than the film’s Blackbeard. The real Edward Teach used restraint with force, choosing to use his name and reputation to get what he wanted before using violence. When you have the film Blackbeard punish a crewmember by setting him on fire twice … well, it’s a bit of a pain. Of course, the film version of Blackbeard controls the Queen Anne’s Revenge psychically, makes his top officers into zombies and keeps stolen ships in bottles using magic… so I don’t think the film was reaching for historical accuracy. Still, if you were looking for a famous pirate from history to make your evil villain, there were plenty of other pirates that actually fit the bill (if we’re going to talk about historical inaccuracy, why did the Spainards speak in English even when just speaking to one another? It’s only a couple of scenes… would it have been so hard to put in subtitles for a few minutes?).
That being said, I did like the character as a villain because, while I think making the villain Blackbeard was kind of dumb, McShane is absolutely sinister and effective. But this brings me to a conundrum running though all the Pirates movies – is there that much of a difference between the “good” pirates and the “bad” ones? When Blackbeard flambes that pirate (again, twice), the whole crew is speechless at this coldblooded murder. But these are the same men whose job qualifications include being OK with stabbing people. They slaughter people on a regular basis, so is that really so different from what Blackbeard is doing?
Now, there are some good parts. The second half of the movie works much more than the first.The plot itself isn’t bad. Compared to the two other sequels, even the silly convoluted plotpoints aren’t too convoluted. The Spaniards frustrated me until the end, at which point I thought their inclusion was actually quite clever. The locations they used (Hawaii, from what I’ve heard) are gorgeous, and I’ll go as far as to say the design for the Fountain of Youth itself was inspired. Cruz is the strongest new character. While it isn’t stated flat-out, Angelica was originally Catholic – even a fall from purity in the form of Jack didn’t shake her belief that anyone’s soul can be saved. It’s that conviction that makes the character interesting. And anytime Depp plays Captain Jack, it’s entertaining. He has so much fun with it, but we also get to see just a little bit more of a moral compass from Jack, which is refreshing. I also appreciated the new dynamic between Jack and Barbosa. The other cameo besides Dench’s that stuck out was Keith Richards’ reprisal as Jack’s father, which felt more natural than the first time. I even didn’t mind how they ended the film. It was smart… wrapped up just enough that if it’s the last movie, it will be a fine way for fans to say goodbye to one of the most interesting characters Disney has made in the 21st century.
Overall: It has some major flaws and takes almost half the film to get rolling, but On Stranger Tides is easily the best of the Pirates sequels.
2 1/2 out of 5 stars