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Non-Review Review: Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

I give a lot of credit to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for managing to cast aside a lot of dead weight from around the franchise’s neck. After the original film, it was apparent to anybody with half a brain that audiences weren’t flocking to the cinema to see the adventures of Will and Elizabeth, but the following two sequels insisted on keeping the large and expansive cast – long after it became clear that the writers had little idea what to do with them. The result was a trilogy that often felt over-loaded and over-burdened. This time around, adopting a ruthless approach to the supporting cast, the screenplay only really brings back Captain Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa as lead characters. Which is grand, because they’re who we’re here to see after all? The rest of the movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it strolls along pleasantly enough.

Life's a beach...

The film does its best to avoid the excessive continuity and plot threads from the earlier instalments, beginning with a relatively fresh adventure that could serve as an entertaining voyage for anybody who doesn’t know the crew of the Black Pearl by name. The film does get a bit bogged down in references at points – after all, did we need to see the monkey again? – but it doesn’t feel like it’s simply treading familiar territory or that it’s designed to frustrate the casual viewer.

However, taken on its own terms, it does have quite a few notable weakness that offset its recently streamlined nature. The movie is pretty much just a Jack Sparrow solo picture, which means that it’s Johnny Depp’s job to carry the picture. While headlining a major franchise motion picture is quite different from hijacking it (as it’s quite clear Will Turner was intended to be the lead, and Jack Sparrow to be the supporting character, in the original film), Depp is up to the task. It’s Depp’s charm and personality which help propel the movie, and give it a sense of consistency as it moves along. Any moment that Jack is on-screen, it’s easy to ignore the narrative or pacing issues, but – on the occasion he ventures off – it’s even more apparent when he isn’t there.

Row, row, row, your boats...

There’s also the simple fact that Jack Sparrow’s appeal in the original film was that he didn’t fit the classic mold of a Hollywood hero (again, there, it was Will Turner’s job). This meant the character could get away with being cheeky, subversive, morally ambiguous and just a little bit manipulative and self-centred. Unfortunately, it becomes hard to make those wonderfully endearing qualities shine when you’re dealing with a central character – Jack is still a little bit cheeky and mischievous, but he’s also much more establishment.

Early in the film, when it is explained that the Fountain of Youth requires a sacrifice in order to work, Jack dismisses prolonging his life at the expense of another. There’s no sense of conflict or self-interest there, just good old-fashioned heroism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that a hero could fathom such a thing, but there’s something about his flat out denial which doesn’t quite sit right with his classic approach of playing both sides against the middle – and the fact that he originally seemed to accept a loss of life if it got him what he wanted (though never maliciously seeking it out). There is a moment at the climax of the film when Jack does do something borderline amoral, playing up his “trickster” credentials – but even then it seems more like an act of altruism (or charity) than naked self-interest. One might accuse Jack of going soft in his old age, of losing that rebel spirit. Modelled on Keith Richards, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. After all, the Rolling Stones were once cutting edge and just a little bit dangerous; now they’re the respected old elder statesmen of rock.

We don't know Jack...

Of course, one could suggest that this represents character growth for everyone’s favourite pirate, and there’s an argument to be made for that. Still, it does feel like the edges of the character have been dulled ever so slightly. That said, it does fit well with one of the movie’s stronger themes – the idea that all radicals eventually mature and settle their philosophical differences with the establishment. (…Or do they?) Jack, originally a character defined by his manipulative selfishness, is now a straight-up hero. Barbossa, originally a pirate, now serves under a naval commission from His Royal Majesty King George II. One of my favourite little moments has Barbossa “Irish-ing up” his very officer-class afternoon tea with a generous helping of port.

Both were originally men to be feared and avoided – yet in their old age they appear to have mellowed. The film toys with the idea that the world is changing and growing. It’s no coincidence that the movie is set during the reign of King George II. The reign of his son, George III, was a period which saw the birth of a future world power, the United States of America. The times they are a-changing.

It isn't swamped with continuity...

This theme is developed quite well – certainly much better than it was during the previous two films. For one thing, it’s a lot less blunt and simplistic than it was there. We don’t need a literal extermination of pirates to make the point, rather an illustration of how ideas and philosophies are shifting. After all, the movie heavily features character motivated by Christian dogma – the growth of organised religion, which would spread outward to the colonies.

While the last two films phrased their argument in a simplistic pirates-against-authorities manner, this film adds a bit of nuance, suggesting that superstition and pagan belief would be the forces to confront organised religion and “enlightenment.” It’s a stronger argument, because it doesn’t require the audience to endorse a bunch of homicidal pirates raiding, murdering and pillaging. Old world spirituality and magic exists independent of pirating as some sort of lifestyle choice.

All washed up?

That said, this rather wonderful idea does give us a clunker of a subplot, one which really seems tertiary at best. The movie features mermaids (and, indeed, it makes for a nice action sequence), but there’s a really strange mermaid-preacher love story bubbling under the surface, with a man of god falling for a killer from the deep. It really sounds like a lame eighties romantic comedy, and – while it serves a neat thematic bookend (with the preacher representing Catholicism and the mermaid apparently one of those creatures cast off Noah’s Ark) – it seems to have little to do with the rest of the plot.

On the other hand, it does allow Johnny Depp to utter the line, “I agree with the missionary’s position”, which might make it all worth while. I was actually surprised at the candor with which the film discussed matters of sexuality – specifically involving mermaids. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that it went right over the children’s heads, but I found it weird the film went into how the mermaids “churn the butter, so to speak.” It couldn’t help but remind me of the episode of Futurama which explored similar questions.

"Why couldn't she be the other type of mermaid, with the fish part on top and the lady part on the bottom?"

Unsurprisingly, given Rob Marshall’s musical choreography skills, the action sequences sparkle in the film. In particular, I liked an early moment which illustrated just how carefully prepared one of Jack’s improvised escapes were. At it’s very best, the film called to mind something of a old-timey Indiana Jones film, and that’s a huge credit to Marshall and his crew. However, the film doesn’t maintain that quality consistently.

There are extended periods filled with exposition and nothing but Johnny Depp being charming, which is a shame. Penelope Cruz is undoubtedly an improvement on the missing cast members, but her role is woefully underwritten. Again, though, there are some fantastic moments – I especially like a bit (early in the film) where Jack gets the opportunity to kiss himself. “I always wanted to do that,” he observes, in that charming way that only Depp can really pull off.

As the Sparrow flies?

In fairness, the film is much stronger than the last two instalments in the franchise, but it isn’t quite as impressive as that very first film. I do think the loss of appeal is something other than a missing sense of originality or freshness, probably something to do with the way that Jack feels almost diminished in being given a larger role. There’s a sense that the movie’s not quite sure how it’s meant to work with such a cheeky lead. Still, there’s a lot to admire in the film, from the way it gives the fans what they were asking for (and taking away a lot of redundant elements) through to the fact that it doesn’t try to heighten the stakes to obscene levels. It’s just an adventure movie, and it succeeds as a relatively entertaining (if flawed) one.

8 Responses

  1. Fine review, Darren. You’ve made me very curious about the film (I had my doubts). I’m not a Rob Marshall fan, especially his musicals (he mimics Bob Fosse’s work a bit too closely, IMO), but I’m willing to see this based upon your assessment. Thanks.

    • Thanks. It’s not really a patch on the first film – which was new and fresh and exciting – but it does tackle a lot of the problems with the last two (in particular the excessive continuity, the constant self-referencing, the expansive cast). It’s a flawed film, and not one of the best of the year so far or anything like that, but it’s decently entertaining.

  2. At least Orlando Bloom isn’t in this one. I never understood why Elizabeth would pick HIM when she could have Dirty-Sexy-Dreadlocked Pirate Johnny Depp.

    • I don’t know, I’m fairly sure Jack’s eternal scheming and reluctance to settle down might seem fun at first, but I can hardly imagine a long-term marriage. On the other hand, at least he is more interesting than wallpaper.

  3. At least I’m not the only one not impressed by Bloom’s turn in the Pirate trilogy. My significant other was too entranced by his shirtlessness though.

  4. This movie pales in comparison to the first. It is not as good as the second or third either. It is bad enough that I actually had to stop watching it and take a break. It just seems cheesy to the point of being stupid. There are a few scenes that make it watchable though. The mermaid scene is really cool and reminds me of the quality of the first movie alot.

    • That’s strange, I didn’t like the mermaids that much. But I thought it was far weaker than the first film, but better than the following two – I liked the fact it was (mostly) cut free of baggage.

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