Home > Film > Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The question, I suppose, is what we should expect from yet another runner from the Pirates of the Caribbean stable? If it’s simply going to rerun the same tired plot, we’ll have Jack on a quest of some kind. There’ll be ships sailing, cutlasses cuttling and general mayhem as required. And soaring above it all, as if high on magic mushrooms, comes Mister Pirate himself, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s weirdly disconnected from everything happening around him and yet benignly interested in how it’s all going to turn out. You get the feeling he’s as much a spectator as those of us on the other side of the screen, forced to go through fantastic manoeuvres in the spirit of the moment, supremely confident it will all come out right (sooner or later). Well, On Stranger Tides is your average curate’s egg. For those of you not into idioms, that now means there are some good bits and some bad bits. If you’re prepared to enter a different dimension while the boring bits are on screen, the whole experience is not unpleasing. If you expect a taut and exciting narrative that’s going to pick you up at the beginning and sweep you through to the end, find another film to see. Although, if you’re a Pirates fan, there’s more than enough of Johnny Depp doing his usual schtik to keep you happy. No matter what anyone may tell you to the contrary, Penélope Cruz is just there to help sell the film outside the US, contributing little to hold our interest. Her lack of impact is explained by her wooden English accent which kills any life in the intended banter with Johnny Depp.

Ian McShane reminding us the size of a man's sword is directly proportional to. . .

 

Looking back, director Rob Marshall has done an unnervingly good job of recreating everything that’s so characteristic of a Pirates film (including the boring bits). This is a missed opportunity. There’s a wonderful story buried in the middle of this complicated excess. If we sent Jack and no more than one villain off to chase down the fountain of youth, we would potentially have economy and tension. Let’s just see what elements we have to play with here. The mermaids are wonderful and by far the best thing in the film, but the zombies are woefully underused. There could be lots of magic and, of course, we’re all going to end up at the fountain of youth where someone may get young all over again.

Geoffrey Rush all dolled up for the royal garden party

 

I suppose On Stranger Tides pulls all its punches on the supernatural side to keep the film children friendly. Everything on Blackbeard’s ship could have been genuinely scary. The fact he can raise the dead (and may even have raised himself), manipulate the rigging, summon wind, and belch fire from the bows of the ship makes him one badass pirate. Even better that he can capture the ships he fights and put them in bottles. Now that’s high class magic and this could have been exploited as a serious threat to all and sundry. Yet the zombies are not at all frightening. Rather, they’re quite chatty for dead folk and, even when spitted on swords, seem remarkably even tempered, being prepared to accept a little bondage rather than bite, claw and generally maim any of the living within reach. And Ian McShane. . . Well, let’s say he’s just a big teddybear. This is the least menacing pirate captain of all time. You can see him laughing at the thought, “evil is my middle name” as he stomps around doing bad stuff. It’s a sad reflection that Geoffrey Rush as a reformed Barbossa is more interesting, although perhaps only because he’s lost a leg and has a bad case of sunburn.

Sam Claffin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey enjoying a quiet moment

 

So what are the good bits? I liked the opening sequences in London. Individual scenes threatened to go on too long — inside the court with the King and incompetent guards, and the redundant scene with Keith Richard being the prime examples. There’s the usual sword play, recreating the fight with Will in the smithy. But getting Jack on to the ship and away is all done with reasonable pace. Thereafter the failed mutiny is unconvincing and we have everything on hold until the magnificent sequence to capture a mermaid. Then we drag around the jungle, have a couple of fights and end up in a cave repeating the idea of Jack switching the goblet just as he stole a gold coin at the end of the first race against Barbossa.

 

Except as a mechanism for ensuring no-one will ever return to the fountain, the inclusion of the Spaniards is a waste of time. There’s too much exposition early on, too much talk in the middle and a redundant epilogue at the end. The highlight is the central relationship between Sam Claffin as a man of firm religious convictions and Astrid Berges-Frisbey who plumbs tragic depths as an abused mermaid. This gave emotional heart to an otherwise dead landscape (allowing for the zombies). It’s a shame this one shining thread gets lost in the drab tapestry formed by the rest of the tired plot devices and acting by the numbers.

 

So if you enjoyed the last two Pirates films, this positively zips along, being far shorter at a mere 137 minutes running time. But if you were bored to tears by the last two outings, this is only marginally better and a classic example of how to take a really good story and throw it away. If you want a better overall experience, try the source book, On Stranger Tides by the impressive Tim Powers. Now that really is a good story about pirates and the fountain of youth. If only Hollywood could have made a film based on this rather than trying to shoehorn everything into the Pirate‘s formula.

 

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