Who would have thought that a franchise based entirely around a Disney theme park ride could turn into one of the most profitable of all time? The hijinks on the high seas of a certain Captain Jack Sparrow, for whatever reason, evidently struck a chord with audiences around the world.
The first film was a genuine delight, a fun and fast-paced adventure that left audiences practically drooling for me – figuratively speaking for most and I’m sure for Twilight-age teenage girls quite literally for the star of the franchise, Johnny Depp. The following two movies were a big let down however, with the second film, subtitled Dead Man’s Chest, setting the whole thing on a confusing and muddled course that the third film unfortunately kept on. The confusing messes of too many characters and plot threads, with the poorly executed romance between Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom weighing everything down.
Fortunately, however, Disney has decided to drop those two dead weights for the next installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, (in fact there is not so much as a mention of them) as well as bringing on Oscar-nominated director Rob Marshall (Chicago), meaning this is the first film in the franchise not to be directed by Gore Verbinski.
But the most important thing for the fourth film is that the focus is placed firmly back on the Captain Jack as it was in the first film, allowing him to once again exert that cheeky, cocky sometimes arrogant, but ultimately enjoyable routine he does that is a joy to watch. Unfortunately he is by far the most enjoyable thing about On Stranger Tides, an overly long (even at 147 minutes, the shortest since the first) and overblown blockbuster that lumbers from action scene to action scene with filler dialogue, often wooden in its grandiosity, and half-hearted (failed) attempts at emotional weight.
The story this time is that Captain Jack and just about every other person with the ability to walk (even if some of them only have one leg to speak of) is after the famous Fountain of Youth (no real explanation needed). Along the way Jack meets a former love, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), both of whom are also after the Fountain of Youth and need to Jack to find it. Of course they do…
Despite an inspired choice of items to centre the fourth film (the Fountain of Youth is a well known myth already and seems perfectly suited to the Pirates franchise), the plot still has the stink of the last two on it. Although nowhere near as confusing or cluttered as those two, it nonetheless feels overstuffed and unnecessarily bulky. And in spite of Captain Jack’s off-beat charms working wonders in the film’s favour (without him, god forbid, this might just have been as bad as the last one), the film often relies much too heavily on his character and the routine that comes with him, almost to the point of distraction.
Having said that you’ll be glad to know it’s not all bad. The action scenes – which the film doesn’t quite know how to get to in a way that doesn’t feel forced – are entertaining in that “turn of your brain” sort of way. There’s some of the spark that made the first one so enjoyable evident in a few of the set-pieces, notably the first encounter between Depp and Cruz (who are certainly a better male-female dynamic than the Knightley-Bloom fiasco) and an escape scene involving palm trees. And the film is genuinely funny in places, sometimes via the physical slapstick that comes along every once in a while and in other times there’s a refreshing sense of self-poking on the film’s part. At least the film has some semblance of a sense of humour.
There are some new faces joining the cast this time around which at least gives us some fresh people to look at, although with the exception of Penelope Cruz (effective enough and a welcome replacement for Knightley) everyone looks very similar in that usual pirate garb. Notable newcomers to the franchise include Ian McShane as the dreaded Blackbeard who is clearly having a good time hamming it up as the franchise’s best baddie since Barbossa (whom is played splendidly again by Geoffrey Rush), Sam Claflin as a character who is effectively Orlando Bloom’s replacement as the young(ish) pretty boy who is brave and noble, and Brit actor Stephen Graham who almost steals the show as cocky hard-worker Scrum.
On Stranger Tides could and should easily be labelled the best Pirates movie since the first one. But given the quality of the last two is that really that much of a compliment? The film certainly has its moments of fun, grandiose set-pieces hitting at consistent stages throughout and wry humour peppered throughout that makes the lulling moments in-between action just about bearable. It is sure to please die-hard fans of the franchise, namely because of the heavy focus on the antics of Captain Jack, but this particularly instalment plods along with disappointing predictability, more often than not scared to stick even one toe out of line. Passable junk food cinema at best.