Frankly, I’ve been fed up with the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series since the second movie. The first film, ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl‘, is a Disney classic. But as often happens, Disney proved with the two subsequent entries, ‘Dead Man’s Chest‘ and ‘At World’s End‘, that the studio is completely incapable of pumping out decent sequels. Although the latest installment, ‘On Stranger Tides’, is easily the best the series has been since ‘The Black Pearl’, it still feels like Disney is not even trying.
‘On Stranger Tides’ is jumbled mess. At first, the movie feels like it was made just for Jack Sparrow fans, not ‘Pirates’ fans. But then his character changes drastically from the way he was portrayed in the previous three films. Jack used to be a bumbling idiot with a smart trick up his sleeve. He was never afraid to takes risks, and constantly threw himself into harm’s way. He’s no longer like that. Now Jack is nothing more than an unshackled prisoner along for the ride. Even though the villain never seems very threatening, Jack never fights back. He never tries to escape. He never dupes anybody. He’s just a submissive follower.
Every bit of originality is now missing from the series. ‘On Stranger Tides’ follows the same formula as previous ‘Pirates’ films. It opens with Jack getting caught, followed by a long escape sequence and lucky coincidence that sets him on a supposed-to-be adventurous journey that just so happens to involve major players from Jack’s life and previous ‘Pirates’ movies.
After almost getting killed in the initial escape, Jack is saved by his father, once again played by Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. Richards is a terrible actor. The One-Eyed Willie dummy from ‘The Goonies‘ could have played this small-but-significant role better. As soon as Jack’s dad spouts out the film’s crutch exposition, he mysteriously disappears as if his character was Jack’s ghostly spiritual guide.
A Jack Sparrow imposter has been going around London recruiting sailors for a mysterious journey. And wouldn’t you know it, the random pub that Jack gets rescued in front of just happens to be where the imposter is hiding away. When his dad disappears, Jack picks a sword fight with the imposter. The swordplay scene that ensues looks just like the one that Jack and Will (Orlando Bloom) had in the opening of the first movie. From the first time you see the imposter, you immediately know that it’s the Penélope Cruz character based on the way she runs and moves.
Cruz plays Angelica, a major player in Jack’s past who was somehow never mentioned in the previous three films. While Jack was a shady, unpredictable wild-card character in the earlier movies, because he’s now the central character, ‘On Stranger Tides’ has to make him an extra likable and kind-hearted hero. We quickly learn that Angelica and Sparrow have a past. Angelica used to live in a convent. Just before she was to take her vows, Jack mistook the convent for a brothel, came into the picture and “stole her innocence.” Angelica was the only woman Jack ever “had feelings for.”
Although they had a strong relationship in the past, Jack left her for some untold reason. In her heartbroken rage, Angelica became a pirate of her own. Amidst her sailing travels, she learned that she happened to be the long-lost daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane from ‘Deadwood‘). Now working as Blackbeard’s First Mate, Angelica is posing as Jack Sparrow to recruit in the very best sailors – which makes no sense because Blackbeard is a much more infamous pirate than Jack Sparrow.
From the moment the characters hit the open sea, ‘On Stranger Tides’ feels like nothing more than a dragged-out version of the final act of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. Jack, Angelica and Blackbeard work together on a dangerous mission to find the lengendary Fountain of Youth. At the same time, a fleet of Spanish conquistadors and a British naval ship try to beat them to it, and that’s where Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa character comes into play.
While Jack and Barbossa were buddies at the end of the last film, there has since been a falling out that caused Barbossa to lose the Black Pearl and become the captain of King George’s royal navy. King George wants the Fountain of Youth for himself, so he has sent a now one-legged Barbossa on the mission.
Finding the Fountain of Youth would seem like a nearly impossible task, right? Wrong. All three ships make it to the not-so-hidden island without maps. They somehow also know exactly where to go on this huge island and exactly what must be done to achieve eternal life. Although they constantly refer to the benefits of the Fountain of Youth being “eternal life,” we learn from Daddy Sparrow that the Fountain doesn’t really give immortality, just a life extension.
‘On Stranger Tides’ is ‘The Last Crusade’ without any effort. Imagine if, in ‘The Last Crusade’, all Indy had to do to obtain eternal life was retrieve the journal from the Nazis, choose the right cup and drink. That’s basically all that our cast has to do here. They need to obtain a teardrop from a mermaid (which actually makes for the only commendable part of the film) and locate Ponce de León’s silver chalices on the island. With those two things in hand, one can obtain not-so-eternal life from the Fountain of Youth. There aren’t any puzzles or riddles that must be completed first. There is no mystery. As an audience, we don’t have to work to put anything together. We simply sit back and watch our characters do the things they have planned to do. No twists or turns are anywhere to be found.
The one thing I will give ‘Pirates’ credit for is the scene where Blackbeard’s crew tries to get a teardrop from a school of mermaids. What initially appears to be an easy task proves most difficult as the mermaids go into a violent feeding frenzy. But even within this awesome idea, ‘On Stranger Tides’ quickly blows it. Instead of simply collecting the teardrop and finishing out the journey, Blackbeard decides to bring the captive mermaid with them on a hike that resembles ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God’. From this decision stems an absolutely worthless sub-plot involving a Christian missionary who fights for the equal rights of this fish-out-of-water, claiming that although she is different, she’s still one of God’s creations.
Just like its title implies, many of the creative decisions in ‘On Stranger Tides’ unexplainably make no sense. We see water droplets oddly defy gravity by falling upwards without any rhyme, reason or even a mention from a single character. We see a bird randomly appear and fly through a secret, invisible, just-opened portal deep within a cave. It’s as if these elements were thrown in just because someone thought they looked cool.
Not all, but a good chunk of the action in ‘On Stranger Tides’ is eye-rollingly ridiculous. Another horrendous Jack Sparrow escape sequence rivals Shia LaBeouf’s vine swinging at 60 miles-per-hour in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘. The action sequences of ‘Pirates’ that were once fun are now replaced with these that are embarrassingly bad.
My biggest beef with the creative decisions in ‘On Stranger Tides’ has to do with the mermaids. The all-female mermaids are topless. Strategically-placed long hair is usually placed over their breasts. Whenever the hair moves out of place, post-production blurring clears up the body parts that cannot be shown in a PG-13 film. If you’re going to have to blur out the picture anyway, why not design the mermaids to look like those in ‘The Little Mermaid’ or something? Giving them seashell bikinis would be easier than digitally removing their body parts. Normally, I wouldn’t have a problem with this, but in a Disney movie? Come on. Disney is selling nipple-less sex in a supposed family film.
Being a so-called adventure movie, there sure isn’t much adventure here. At one point in the film, Jack Sparrow says the line, “It’s the journey that matters.” I disagree. We come to a movie like this for adventure and don’t get it. It’s like ‘Ocean’s Twelve‘, the heist movie without a heist. For the fourth part of an adventure series, adventure is expected. If it truly is “the journey that matters,” could ‘Fast Five’ have been a success earlier this year without a single car chase? No way.
If you’re a fan of the ‘Pirates’ series despite the previous two awful sequels, then you’ll probably have no qualms with ‘On Stranger Tides’. If you’re a Jack Sparrow fan looking forward to seeing classic Jack on the big screen, be prepared for letdown with the nicer, timid Jack. If you’re like me and cannot stand the earlier sequels, save yourself a few bucks, stay home, and pop in ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’ on Blu-ray. If we all act accordingly, maybe Disney will put forth an effort, green-light a solid screenplay for ‘Pirates Five’, and actually deserve the boatloads of money it earns from this franchise.