There’s a change in director, but is it a return to form? Oscar gives us his take on the most forgotten Pirates adventure.
Who made it?: Rob Marshall (Director), Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio (Writers), Jerry Bruckheimer (Producer), Walt Disney Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, Stephen Graham.
IMDb rating: 6.7/10.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the second-most successful film in the franchise (as of this writing), and also the one that everyone seemingly forgets. This one tries to skirt around the heavily divisive second and third movies and tries to be a standalone adventure film, and while I give it credit for it being self-contained, there are several clear faults that keep it from being as memorable as the other sequels or even as well-written as the first.
After a failed attempt to rescue his first mate in London, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally), Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is brought before King George II (Richard Griffiths). The king wants Jack to guide an expedition to the Fountain of Youth before King Ferdinand and the Spanish Navy can locate it. Jack’s old nemesis, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in service to the British Navy after losing his leg and the Black Pearl – which he says was sunk much to Jack’s fury – is heading the expedition.
Jack refuses the offer and escapes, meeting up with his father, Captain Teague (Keith Richards), who warns Jack about the Fountain’s rituals. Jack learns someone is impersonating him to recruit a crew to find the Fountain. The impostor is Angelica (Penélope Cruz), Jack’s former lover, and the daughter of the ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who practices voodoo magic and wields the mythical “Sword of Triton” that controls his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. While Jack is shanghaied aboard Blackbeard’s ship, Gibbs escapes execution by memorising and destroying Jack’s map showing the Fountain’s location, forcing Barbossa to take him along. Part of the components for the ritual of eternal life is a tear from a mermaid, two chalices from the Ponce de Leon, and a victim to sacrifice.
The acting here is fine, but the cast are starting to lack the spring in their steps. Depp hits the deadpan notes fine but, alas, he is more of a clown here than he was in the trilogy, since he’s expected to be both the comic relief and the main character. Rush is great, as usual, and they manage to do something interesting with his turning over to the Royal Navy. While not given the best material to work with, Cruz actually does have some good acting scenes throughout the film; she’s tough, funny and duplicitous like Jack. I’m torn on McShane as Blackbeard; he’s both both calm and collected and also hammy and sinister, but his delivery sometimes doesn’t sound right, and at other times, he sounds like one of the animatronic pirates from the old ride. McNally is still dependable as Gibbs, and newcomer Stephen Graham has his funny moments as a pirate named Scrum, who is ironically funnier than Jack in some areas. Sam Claflin plays a preacher named Philip, and it’s fairly rote as a Will Turner stand-in sans any interesting character traits; he’s been better in other roles. Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as Syrena is really lackluster, without any of the traits that make the other mermaids interesting or intimidating. The late, great Richard Griffiths is a standout as King George, being over-the-top and gruesome in the best possible way. Even though he looks like he just walked onto the film set on his own accord, it was fun seeing Keith Richards for a bit. Oh, and Judi Dench has a cameo as an elderly noblewoman…
The visual effects and set work on Georgian London are generally solid, as are the Londoners with their gnarly yellow teeth and various costumes. The Queen Anne’s Revenge is a well-realised ship in both design and character, and is a cool setting to be around, like the Black Pearl in the first film. The mermaids look awesome, having a creepy vampiric side to them and are more given to violence than earlier incarnations, and the effects on them (and when Syrena becomes human) are well done. Having a somewhat softer look than the previous films gives it a different feel. In this case, it looks consistent not just with prior films but with itself. Scenes set at night, on the Queen Anne’s Revenge or in the jungle, look excellent.
Rob Marshall is very much a director for hire here, applying his competence in helming musicals to the action scenes, which are functional but not exceptional. Individual set-pieces are pretty fun in and of themselves, like the carriage chase through London, the mutiny aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and the confrontation with the mermaids. There is a nice visual display of Angelica’s competence and cunning, as well as the use of dirty tricks, visually likening her to Jack. The night raid on the Spanish camp displays some good atmosphere and direction. The Santiago set is reminiscent of the Disneyland ride, with its pile of treasure and the garbed skeleton staring out from the bed. The upwards-falling water drops and watery gateway to the fountain are pretty neat visuals. The climax is decidedly scaled down from previous entries, and tries to rely more on the stakes between Jack and Angelica.
We get a mostly familiar musical score from Hans Zimmer, but the additional haunting choir bits for the mermaids as well as the Spanish guitar music provided by ax-wielding stars Rodrigo y Gabriela for Angelica’s scenes give it some identity and character. A lot of what they composed did not end up in the film, alas, but is great to listen to by itself. We also have a subtle, sinister theme for Blackbeard that fits in with the other evil pirate cues. When there are familiar musical beats, some of them fit the scenes they’re in and some feel forced and out-of-place.
In addition to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio penning the script and story treatment, we have a plot credit that reads “suggested by the story by Tim Powers.” I have not read the Powers book On Stranger Tides, but “suggested by” is not exactly the most inspired of credits, and I doubt that much of the book is well-represented in the film. Having the film’s McGuffin be the Fountain of Youth gives the adventure more of an Indiana Jones feel to it, but where it goes from there is a mixed bag. Once again, the complicated nature of the plot to find the Fountain and how to reap its life-extending rewards hinders the film. Even Jack agrees that it’s needlessly complicated, but self-awareness will only get you so far. A lot of things seem to happen “just because” or they’re merely part of the franchise’s supernatural setting, like the insertion of prophecies, voodoo, zombies, and other mystical things. Now, zombie pirates do sound really cool, but not explaining or doing anything with them? Not so much. They’re not exactly creatively-designed or decayed-looking like the skeleton pirates.
Blackbeard himself is another case of being shrouded in mystery, but not always to the best effect. How did he escape death? How did he become a sorcerer? Why does he keep ships as trophies? Not addressed. Also, how the heck did Gibbs manage to memorise the entire map as well as decrypt all of its puzzles, something that took more experienced pirates forever to do in the previous movie? Either he’s a victim of lousy writing or he’s almost as mad as Jack is. If this was an animated movie, Jack’s escape by use of palm trees would be a viable escape route, maybe even comedically inspired, but in live-action it just looks silly. And lastly, the romance between Philip and Syrena is straight up boring, and only bears relevance because of the mermaid tear needed for the Fountain.
This film has a weird thing for paper-thin disguises; we first see Jack poorly-disguised as a judge, not even bothering with a change of accent, and even Gibbs doesn’t buy it, but the whole crowd does. Meanwhile, Penelope Cruz is too short and slight of frame to believably pose as Jack Sparrow for more than one scene. I get that it’s supposed to be funny, but in the film’s own context, the Jack Sparrow imposter plot is meant to be taken seriously.
Despite these many flaws, I find it a fairly easy to watch film. There are several lines that really crack me up, such as a play on words in which Jack mistook a nunnery for a brothel, and when Philip declares that he’s neither with nor against the pirates, one of the crew asks if he can do that and Jack responds, “He’s religious, I believe it’s required.” Credit does go to both Depp and Cruz for infusing a lot of chemistry in their scenes together and carrying the film’s many ridiculous moments. Having said that, it does end on a note that strikes me as contradictory to both characters and shuts out the possibilities of these two embarking on further adventures.
Can I say once more that Rush is awesome as Barbossa? Because he is! He can be just as funny as Jack, if not more so, because of his comparatively more understated expressions and chemistry with Depp. His account of the takeover of the Pearl is great, and his scenes with Jack are enjoyable as their odd relationship continues to grow more bizarre yet strangely amicable. While their enmity in Curse of the Black Pearl is still their dynamic at its most interesting, it is perversely satisfying to see Barbossa take his revenge and have him embrace his old villainous ways, outwitting everyone including his royal employers in the process. Barbossa is simultaneously less his old self and yet trying to win back his legendary pirate status, but they do something somewhat interesting with him with his personal vendetta against Blackbeard. At first it appears that he became Sao Feng with his “join the winning side” strategy, which has a decent pay-off in the end.
At the end of the day, On Stranger Tides feels like a very incidental movie. It’s the vanilla Pirates film, playing to the familiar pirate genre trappings. Alas, the many plot holes, prolonged scenes and questionable writing are just too detrimental and ubiquitous to ignore. There’s still some debate whether it is worse than its predecessors or immediate successor, but for me, it’s not enough of a train-wreck or a bizarre concoction of awesome and badness to warrant getting worked up about. It’s a film that I admittedly like more than I probably should as a serious reviewer, but that’s par for the course for me as a Pirates fan.
- While filming in London in October 2010, Johnny Depp received a letter from a local nine-year old schoolgirl, telling him her classmates needed help to “mutiny” against her teachers. He turned up with almost no warning at the school in full Sparrow outfit, but advised against mutiny.
- During filming, a Jack Sparrow impersonator just walked onto the set. The guards did not think to ask for any ID, as he looked so much like the character (Reported in the English papers).
- Jerry Bruckheimer gave strict instructions to casting directors that actresses auditioning for the mermaid roles must have natural breasts. During shooting of their scenes, they were not allowed outside until dusk, in order to avoid spoiling their make-up.
- Depp bought new water proof jackets for five hundred crew members on the set, to protect them from the cold weather. He spent a total of 64,200 dollars from his own pocket.
- The only Pirates of the Caribbean film at that point not to receive any Oscar nominations.