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Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Premise: The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is forced to lead the cruel pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) to the fountain of youth while Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Spanish naval forces pursue them.

What Works: Pirates of the Caribbean has been a wildly uneven film series. The original picture was good fun and had the advantage of being both a pleasant surprise and a relatively fresh family-oriented adventure picture. The follow up, Dead Man’s Chest, was a bit bloated and overproduced but it was a satisfying follow up that tried to do something interesting with its characters. That lead was completely blown in the third film, At World’s End, which was an obnoxious and incoherent disaster that I named one of the worst pictures of 2007. The newest Pirates film, On Stranger Tides, manages to recover the franchise by scaling the film back a bit and attempting to recapture what was successful about the original film. The storytelling dispenses with the complicated double-crossing of the last few films and takes a straightforward approach to its storytelling. This film also significantly cuts back on the number of characters and provides a worthy adversary in Ian McShane’s Blackbeard, who is one of the most villainous pirate characters in the entire series.

What Doesn’t: Although On Stranger Tides is an improvement, it still isn’t very good. Whenever the action of a Pirates of the Caribbean film isn’t on or around the sea, a lot of what is unique about it gets lost. Unfortunately, a large portion of On Stranger Tides takes place on land and the film suffers for it. In its attempt to return to the success of the original film, it recapitulates a lot of scenarios and character relationships of the first film and by repeating so much of the original, this new one feels less like a new adventure and more like a greatest hits reel of earlier Pirates films. The action scenes lack a sense of showmanship and the new characters that this film introduces are really lesser versions of the same characters from earlier movies. But On Stranger Tides suffers the most from its trademark: Captain Jack Sparrow, played again by Johnny Depp. The original Pirates of the Caribbean was not really about Sparrow at all; he was a supporting character and that is where the role belongs. By placing Sparrow at the center of these films, which the sequels have gradually done and On Stranger Tides does unequivocally, it diminishes the power of the character and creates a serious story problem. Basic storytelling principles dictate that main characters have to change between the beginning and the ending of a film. Jack Sparrow is not only the same character at the end of On Stranger Tides that he is at the beginning, but he is the same character at the end of this film that he is at the beginning of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, although he is now far less amusing because he is overexposed and trapped in a script that does not know what to do with the character.

Bottom Line: On Stranger Tides may have saved the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but it still isn’t very good. At this point the filmmakers behind the Pirates films need to either find a radically new approach to this material or end it altogether.

Episode: #342 (June 5, 2011)