Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Devils and black-sheep and really bad eggs

I admit to being among the folks who were apprehensive about the amendments to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in DisneyWorld, but it wasn’t all that bad.  They didn’t mutilate the sets or remove the “Yo-Ho” song; they just placed an animatronic Jack Sparrow in a few spots and made a throwaway reference to Davy Jones.  Die-hard fans of the Gore Verbinski Pirates films had the same initial reaction when they learned of the fourth installment, which serves as a sort of “reboot” to the series, crowning a new director, eliminating most of the supporting cast (including Bloom and Knightley), and reverting to the classic adventure film structure.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is directed by Rob Marshall and claims to be “suggested by” Tim Powers’ novel, On Stranger Tides, a truly epic historical/mythological fiction in which the protagonist, Jack Shandy, finds himself on board Blackbeard’s ship on a journey to the Fountain of Youth.  Jack Sparrow finds himself in similar circumstances here.  The story begins with Sparrow (Johnny Depp) pulling a daring, antic-laden rescue in London, aiding his best friend, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) in escaping trial and execution.  From there, Sparrow encounters several new characters, including Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a former flame he neglected to mention during the events of the first three films, Scrum (the prolific Stephen Graham), a musical deckhand helping Angelica enlist new shipmates, and his oddball father, the mysteriously-named Captain Teague (Keith Richards), who seemingly has his hair done by the same Voodoo hairdresser as Jack.  Angelica ropes Jack into a journey onboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship belonging to her supposed father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and the reluctant Sparrow agrees, his real motives unknown even to himself.  Other characters include the returning Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, having fun as usual), who has inexplicably joined the King’s Navy to seek the Fountain for England; Philip Swift (Sam Claflin), a missionary and Boring Hero replacing Orlando Bloom; Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), a mermaid; the underused Spaniard (Óscar Jaenada), the head of the Spanish Secret Service aiming to destroy the Fountain; and Richard Griffiths as the historical King George II, portrayed as the pompous blowhard he was.

The new cast is an effective ensemble and most (not all) deserve the sans-Depp scenes they get to carry by themselves.  Rush transitions from his amazing performance in The King’s Speech to reprising Barbossa, and the results are great – it’s different.  He’s not just a pirate this time; he has his own motives, and they thread into the story without delving into endless, bloated side-plots.  That said, the film as a whole is much stronger and leaner than the previous two in terms of focus, length, and characterization.  Marshall remembers the humor, fun and spirit of the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, and also that getting an audience to care about characters doesn’t mean simply putting them on screen for a long time and having them whine about their problems (although, to be fair, Philip and Syrena don’t quite deserve what we’re supposed to feel for them).  Cruz gels into these films and their adapted history and mythology far better than Keira Knightley in terms of ethnic background, sea-going experience and virtually everything about the character’s life, not to mention acting style – don’t get me wrong; Knightley’s chops are undeniable, but in terms of maritime historical fiction, Cruz just fits.  McShane’s Blackbeard is menacing, and many of his scenes with Depp are priceless.  Of particular interest to me (a person greatly into maritime history) was the mention of Blackbeard’s real-life death, though after the journey begins, the Blackbeard of On Stranger Tides isn’t quite as engaging a character as much of the supporting cast, particularly Angelica, Scrum, and Barbossa.

This is the first film in the series to employ actual references to history with actors performing as people who once existed (if you don’t count Mrs. Cheng in At World’s End), and it is mostly a success.  Suddenly, the mythology makes sense.  Yes, there was the butchered (but inspired) mythology of parts 2 and 3 in the series, including the amalgam of Davy Jones, the Flying Dutchman, and the kraken, but all that clears the way for material we can more readily sink our teeth into, including stories about mermaids.  As told in many songs and tales of the age, if a sailor saw a mermaid, it was a sign his ship would soon come to wreck.  The mermaids here don’t presume to shatter any stereotypes; they’re vicious creatures with a nondiscriminatory hunger for the blood of men (except Syrena, apparently, who has a heart of gold).  Gemma Ward briefly appears in the film’s best and most harrowing sequence, singing the traditional “Jolly Sailor Bold” with Stephen Graham before the predicted massacre at the fictional Whitecap Bay.  While wonderful, the sequence could have been improved with some genuine surprise, i.e. not having a grizzled old sailor babble for five minutes prior about how mermaids are sure to appear and eat the crew at any minute.

While taking inspiration from the Powers novel, the film also follows suit with the other three and borrows from Ron Gilbert’s Monkey Island series of video games, which in turn was inspired by the DisneyWorld ride.  References in this film include the Voodoo fetch quest/ritual, the deserted island on which a certain someone is marooned, and Blackbeard’s Voodoo doll of Jack Sparrow – light in comparison to the heavy references in the first two movies, particularly Jack Davenport’s costume in Dead Man’s Chest, but it’s there, and it’s satisfying if you know the references.  History, the original ride, a good adventure novel, and Ron Gilbert: sounds like a good package, right?

The film doesn’t hit every mark, but it “does the rounds” as far as blockbuster adventure films go.  Kids understand what’s going on even if they’d rather have the CG fish people and giant squid, and there’s enough clever humor, maritime historical play and responsible treatment of characters to keep adult displeasure limited to the fact that you’re sitting in a very uncomfortable seat for over two hours.

P.S. See it in 2D, or you won’t see much of anything.

P.P.S. A script for a fifth film has been completed.  My main concern?  They’ve used up all the good lines from the ride.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott; directed by Rob Marshall; starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane.

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