We first met Johnny Depp’s memorable Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and it was a delightful film, a fun amusement park ride even more entertaining than the eponymous Disneyland ride upon which it was based.
With more than a bit of hubris, director Gore Verbinski filmed Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, the second and third installments, simultaneously, and it showed. At World’s End was a chaotic, incomprehensible mess.
Verbinski quit after the first three Pirates films and Rob Marshall directs part four, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. There are also significant casting changes: Depp is back as Sparrow, but Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are both absent, the latter replaced by the less talented Penelope Cruz, who plays Angelica, daughter of dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
The story is a race to the fabled Fountain of Youth. Sparrow ends up shanghaied as part of Blackbeard’s crew, while Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) heads up the English privateer’s vessel, guided by Gibbs (Kevin McNally). The Spanish, meanwhile, have sent three ships to the New World, seeking to arrive first.
One of the most interesting characters in the film is Philip (Sam Claflin), a Bible-toting Christian surrounded by cutthroats. He’s the naïve optimist surprised when his more cynical mates exploit him.
Still, it’s his blossoming love for the trapped mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) that propels the story forward, even as the romance between Sparrow and Angelica proves lackluster. In fact, Angelica had no charisma on screen and was one of the most uninteresting characters in the film.
There’s a sense that On Stranger Tides is a series of action scenes loosely stitched together by a flimsy storyline, but I felt that the film still had too few action sequences and a bit too much narrative exposition.
During an early swordfight in “The Captain’s Daughter” pub, there is some witty banter between Angelica and Jack that, unfortunately, rarely surfaces again. In fact, Angelica and Jack sound like a tired old couple that regrets their college breakup but are resigned to their separate lives and more than willing to ignore the small flame they have for the other. It’s uninspired, as is the vapid dialogue between Philip and Syrena.
There’s also a sense that characters and creatures are introduced to the storyline but then not utilized to their full potential, most notably in the disfigured zombie officers on Blackbeard’s ship. Zombies? Sounds like a fruitful path for story twists and turns, but they are treated like just more hands on deck, not supernatural beings.
The film’s treatment of mermaids was much better, presenting these lethal beauties as the sirens of the sea, not the neutered mermaids we’ve gotten used to from Ariel and her ilk in The Little Mermaid. These mermaids are scary and represent a two-edged sword of female sexuality: Get close, but don’t get too close, or you won’t live to tell the tale.
On Stranger Tides wasn’t as entertaining as The Curse of the Black Pearl, but it’s a good reboot from the dismal mess that was the second and third films in the series. It’s a classic no-thought-required movie that will help hasten summer, and it’s the rare filmgoer who won’t enjoy it.