If a tree falls in a forest and no one's around, does it make a sound? If Captain Jack Sparrow returns in a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, does anyone care? And most importantly, with most of the original cast gone and a new director, is it any good? The answer to the latter is ‘not very', as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides looks nice but lacks the energy of the previous entries.
On Stranger Tides, which could be titled "The Jack Sparrow Show" for simplicity's sake, follows Johnny Depp's Oscar-nominated character as he attempts to discover the fountain of youth before the evil Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and old frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) - oh, and the Spaniards, too - find it first.
Rob Marshall takes over the reigns for this fourth installment, which, after the last two overly complicated and overeager sequels, is much simpler, smaller and down to earth. Marshall maintains the visual look and feel of the previous films, albeit offering nothing new or imaginative into the mix. The movie does feel like a throwback to the original, which is nice, but the results are as appetizing as stale sea bread.
The movie suffers from a variety of problems, most important of which is that the Pirates of the Carribean franchise has just simply run its course. Given how lucrative the previous three films were for Disney, no one can be blamed for making a fourth one - but the picture feels much more like a moneygrab than the others.
I loved Curse of the Black Pearl but wasn't a fan of its two sequels, but at least the sequels were ambitious and crazy and attempted to do something new and fresh. They sputtered in their execution, but at least they tried. On Stranger Tides is, at least for the first two acts, boring.
‘Boring.' It's a funny word to use for a movie with so much action. There are plenty of action sequences throughout, some of which are pretty elaborate. And yet when all is said and done, only one truly great scene stands out to me - the mermaid attack - while the others all feel like one long swordfight.
The problem lies with the fact that Captain Jack is now the central character. While the rise in Johnny Depp's popularity slowly forced the other films to revolve more and more around him, Captain Jack Sparrow is and always will be a better supporting character than leading man. He is a caricature, a goofball who always manages to get in and out of trouble with no more than a slap on the wrist. Nothing bad can ever really happen to him, and he also can't develop as a character without betraying what audiences love about him. In other words, he's fun to watch but he's not interesting.
The other movies had other characters we cared about (less so in the sequels), who were also more vulnerable than Captain Jack. On Stranger Tides offers little to latch onto. The involvement by Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa this time around is even more forced than before, and frankly Rush isn't very good in this. Penelope Cruz's character can't keep up with Captain Jack the way the filmmakers intended, and even Ian McShane, as entertaining and wicked as he is at times, isn't as compelling of a villain as Barbossa was in the first film.
The most interesting characters are Philip and the mermaid Syrena, played by Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey. Their budding relationship is intriguing and simultaneously the most tenuous, but Philip is purely a secondary character and Syrena a prop. A very good looking, naked prop. Neither are given the screentime they deserve. I'm still not sure what became of Philip at the end.
I could complain about other details of the production, but it's sufficient to say the movie is a lesser version of Curse of the Black Pearl in every conceivable way. Having just watched the original a few months ago, it's startling to see how funny, fast-moving and imaginative that movie was; On Stranger Tides lacks the constant humor, and, more importantly, the immersive atmosphere we've come to expect.
Despite its flaws, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is tolerable throughout. But "tolerable throughout" is not an acceptable level for a tentpole franchise like this. Wait to rent it, or better yet, just watch Curse of the Black Pearl again.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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