Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (review)

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Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides

Fun Becalmed

I just figured out why I’ve been craving potato chips — er, crisps — today. It’s because I’ve been percolating in the back of my mind my review of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: the movie is junk-food cinema, I must now admit to myself and the world. This is not a good movie. It’s empty calories. But I scarfed it down anyway. And that’s fine, in its place. Sometimes junk food is satisfying, in its own limited, instantly forgettable, hungry-again-an-hour-later sort of way. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I wallowed in On Stranger Tides and let the grease of it stain my fangirl fingers. I did.

Okay, I’m a little bit embarrassed. I’ve been listening to my fellow critics talk about the movie for the past week, getting snippets of their eventual reviews as we chat in screening rooms waiting for other movies to begin. And I can’t refute a one of their snide putdowns of Tides (I won’t repeat them here, though I will heartily list my own objections below). I’ve listened to them snarking on the film’s many many faults and I’ve laughed, but only at myself, because they’re not wrong and yet still it doesn’t change the fact that I really had a lot of fun with this movie.
Here’s the thing: Remember how we all felt before that first POTC movie so many years ago? Remember how we rolled our eyes and groaned, “Sheesh, a movie based on a theme-park ride? Based on a bad theme-park ride?” If Tides had been the first movie we got, our fears would have been borne out. Much of what returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have given us here feels perfunctory, calculated, obvious: it feels like what a Disneyfied idea of piracy would entail. Not much coldblooded murder or abduction — though, there is some, it’s true — and very little scurvy or forced naval servitude. It’s all yo-ho-ho fun in the pirate army. Not that the previous three flicks have been Schindler’s List on the high seas. But they had a balance that is missing here.

See, Johnny Depp (Rango, The Tourist) is back as Captain Jack Sparrow, and he — Depp, that is — is hugely entertaining. Jack is off to search for the Fountain of Youth, and there’s a secret map to the place, and some zombie pirate officers who get in his way, and some voodoo, and some mermaids who need to be captured, etc: all sorts of magic piratey preindustrial dark-fairy-tale goodness. Jack Sparrow is so much a 3D special effect all by himself that the movie hardly needs to actually be in 3D. Jack is fun to be around.

But Jack is out of equilibrium here in Tides. He’s got Penelope Cruz (Sex and the City 2, Nine) as a delicious lady pirate to banter with — and as a former lady love of his, there is a nice collection of naughty entendre, too. But she’s a lot like Jack. There’s Ian McShane (Case 39, Coraline) as the pirate Captain Blackbeard, who is a very bad man indeed, and Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole) is back as Barbossa, Jack’s longtime frenemy… but they’re a lot like each other. There’s a bit of a feeling of too-many-notes here, and all singing the same tune. What Jack — and Tides — is missing are Orlando Bloom’s upstanding Will and Keira Knightely’s proper-lady Elizabeth. Kirk needs his Bones and Spock. Harry needs his Ron and Hermione. Jack is all id, and he needs his ego and his superego to tamp him down and call him on his bullshit and to be our stand-ins.

It didn’t need to be Will and Elizabeth, specifically. There is a bit of promise for a short while that the handsome upstanding young blond square-jawed priest (Sam Claflin) Blackbeard has kidnapped — he’s required for a ritual at the Fountain, it seems — would be the new Will, the one to stand aside and point at Jack and tell him he’s a jackass and force him to be better than is his wont. But that never comes to pass. And Jack is left without an audience to shock.

Because as much as we might love Jack — and I do, I certainly do — I’m not shocked by him anymore. Which was half the fun of Jack. That’s another big flaw of Tides (which is ostensibly based on the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], but don’t believe it). All the stuff that seemed fresh and funny eight years ago now feels familiar, and hence less surprising: that is in the nature of a threequel. Which is a good reason, probably, to stop making movies that need numbers at the ends of their titles.

But mostly Tides isn’t as thrilling as its predecessors because there’s no one to step aside from all the silliness onscreen and point it out for the outrageous nonsense it is. Director Rob Marshall (Nine, Memoirs of a Geisha) is, oddly, too reverent, to make, say, the Monty Python-esque courtroom sequence that opens the film really fly. Sure, you can be the one who steps aside and points and tells the film it’s being a jackass (in a good way). But we didn’t need to do that in the past. The outrageous nonsense is still fun… just not quite as much fun as it once was.

see also:
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (review)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (review)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (review)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Dead Men Tell No Tales) movie review: yo ho no

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