05 June 2011

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" Review

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Kevin R. McNally and Geoffrey Rush
Suggested by the Novel by Tim Powers
Based on Walt Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean
Based on Characters Created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert
Screen Story and Screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio
Directed by Rob Marshall
Theatrical Release Date: 20 May 2011
Date of Screening: 4 June 2011
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First things first.  I know there were many who scorned Disney for producing a fourth Pirates movie, dismissing On Stranger Tides out of hand as nothing more than yet another crass attempt to milk a cash cow.  Obviously, every movie made is made to make money, so I think the "cash cow" argument is specious in the first place.  I give Disney credit, actually, for having the courage to make this fourth film without Orlando Bloom or Keira Knightley. Their love story resonated strongly with a lot of women.  In fact, the most common thing I heard and read before anything was even known about the story was how "stupid" it was to make a sequel without all of the original cast, and how their absence was going to "ruin" this film.  Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer ran quite a risk of alienating a large part of their audience, and I give them credit for rolling the dice on not only the change in cast and characters, but also for handing over the director's chair to Rob Marshall to succeed Gore Verbinski (who helmed the first three films).

As it turns out, the Fountain of Youth has been discovered, compelling the British and Spanish governments to dispatch competing expeditions.  The British Royal Navy's task force is commanded by Hector Barbossa (Rush), who has elected to throw in his lot with His Majesty's Royal Navy after years of being on the other side as a pirate.  Caught in the competition is Jack Sparrow (Depp), who falls in with Angelica (Cruz) and Blackbeard (McShane), also seeking the Fountain.  The motivations of each party are different, but clear and understandable.

All the principle characters are given ample time to bicker with one another, which is probably second only to the spectacular action sequences as the most important element on display throughout the film.  The dynamics between Jack, Angelica and Blackbeard are amusing and interesting, and most of all they're accessible.  Depp and Rush give us more of the same, so if you're hoping for something new from them you'll be disappointed.  I personally find their chemistry the most appealing element in the series (I love Rush in general, and particularly when he goes all-out as Barbossa), so I was happy they didn't try to fix something I didn't think was broken.

McShane was an inspired casting choice as Blackbeard, and really could have carried a more realistic film about the famed pirated that wasn't part of this franchise.  As for Penelope Cruz, my wife and I are in disagreement.  She felt Cruz was wasted on this part, which she believes could have been played by nearly anyone else and made little difference.  I, on the other hand, adore Cruz and feel she really lit up the screen and infused it with a subtle charm.

If for some reason you've passed on the previous three films, that's not a liability here.  In fact, quite a lot of back story is suggested throughout this film, and I applaud all involved for having the restraint to content themselves at hinting at the events that have transpired before this film, because surely someone had the idea that they could turn the back story into a film all its own and stretch On Stranger Tides into at least a pair of films, if not a trilogy all its own.  Certainly there's potential for a continuation of specific plot points, but this one feels self-contained and that's its greatest achievement, really.

This is not to say that the film is without its faults.  I give writers Elliott and Rossio credit for presenting early exposition through action sequences to keep us from becoming bored, but the cumulative effect is that the first half hour becomes almost tedious.  No one, it seems, can just have a conversation without it turning into a duel or a chase across London.  It doesn't help that Hans Zimmer relies almost exclusively on his existing themes to score these sequences, not bothering to create anything new.  (The score is rescued from being entirely ho-hum by the killer guitar work of Rodrigo y Gabriela, who were brought in to contribute some Spanish flavor that works very well.)

For my part, I just wanted to return to the sense of lighthearted adventure that characterized the first Pirates film in 2003, before it became a self-conscious franchise trying to invent its own mythology, bogged down by the aforementioned Bloom/Knightley dynamic.  It has some fat to be trimmed, certainly, but at least the story made sense and was actually fun this time.  For a viewer of my generation, I feel it calls back to the Indiana Jones series.  In fact, I might have titled this film Captain Jack Sparrow and the Last Crusade, as there are several parallels to the third Indy outing.

I was prepared to let this be my last Pirates movie, but I feel it has renewed my interest.  I wasn't fatigued by the end of this one as I had been the last two times.  Rather, I felt as though I'd just spent a couple of hours being entertained by some coherent, escapist adventure.  And that's really all I ask of the Pirates of the Caribbean.

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