Monday, May 16, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I think it's fair to say The Curse of The Black Pearl took most of us by surprise. Right at the start of what is being perceived as Hollywood's creative downfall (board games being turned into movies, etc.), a film based on a theme park ride frankly seemed like a horrible idea. But the movie was a ton of fun, and launched Johnny Depp's career to new heights. Immediately capitalizing on its success, Disney greenlit two back-to-back sequels which are not nearly as well regarded as the first movie in this series. Now, with a new director and a few fresh faces, can the Mouse House breath new life into this franchise? More importantly, does On Stranger Tides approach the quality of the first movie? Read on to find out.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane

To instantly answer my previous question, On Stranger Tides aspires to be a standalone movie in a similar way that The Curse of The Black Pearl was intended to be a one-and-done film, so it shares some qualities in that regard. I don't think it reaches the greatness of the original, but it's far better than the other two sequels. The biggest difference between On Stranger Tides and the first three films is, strangely enough, something about this one just doesn't feel quite like a Pirates movie. But we don't have to dig far to find out the cause of the change: in 2007, Disney purchased the rights to a book written in 1987 by Tim Powers called "On Stranger Tides". Pirates writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio adapted elements from Powers' story - plotlines involving Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth - and took the book's name for their own. I haven't read Mr. Powers' book, so I can't pretend to be able to point to every piece of this film that was influenced by his material, but there's a definite disconnect with the rest of the series. 

Say what you will about Dead Man's Chest and At World's End - and trust me, I've talked smack about them before and will continue to do so with no shame - but at least the original trilogy felt like a cohesive unit. In fact, I'd say those stories rely on each other almost TOO much - Dead Man's Chest can't even stand alone as it's own movie: it's basically just a stepping stone to At World's End. And while the absence of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in On Stranger Tides is greatly appreciated by this writer, something still feels peculiar. Perhaps it's that Sparrow is a captain without a ship, spending more time reacting to situations instead of confidently charging toward a goal. Perhaps it's the addition of the cleric character Philip and his romantic subplot with a mermaid (paired with the consequential muddling of that mythology - are mermaids evil, or not?).

Regardless of it's foibles, I actually did have a fun time watching this movie. Rob Marshall ably fills in behind the camera, and while he can't coax the liveliness out of his actors that Gore Verbinski managed earlier in the series or capture the same aesthetic with the camera, he does give us some pretty solid action sequences. An escape scene near the beginning was a highlight for me, and the introduction of Angelica (Penelope Cruz) - a swordfight in the back of a bar - called back to Jack Sparrow's first meeting with Will Turner in The Curse of the Black Pearl. Other than that, though, the film was pretty by-the-numbers, never providing any surprises or unexpected twists. Characters are introduced early on that are all questing for The Fountain of Youth, and anyone who has seen a movie before can predict that they'll all arrive at the same time for a big showdown at the Fountain, so essentially the rest of the movie is kind of just filler bullsh*t until they get there. At 137 minutes, it's actually the shortest of the series, but I thought some severe pacing issues dragged it out and it felt much longer.

The movie was shot mostly in Hawaii, and distracted me at times by utilizing some of the same locations as LOST. There's even a scene in the movie involving an old shipwreck in the middle of the jungle, conjuring memories of The Black Rock from the aforementioned television series. Disney cut the budget drastically from the last two films, and you can feel the filmmakers wanting to go all out in certain areas (locations included) but not having the freedom to do so. They skimp on the budget but have enough money to add unnecessary (and terrible) 3D in post? Come on. (In case that wasn't clear enough, if you do see this movie in theaters, please save your money and just see it in regular 2D.) And to be expected, the movie leaves plenty of room for additional sequels, so expect much of the cast to return for more swashbuckling in the next couple of years.

Though On Stranger Tides leaves a lot to be desired, it's still worth seeing for fans of the franchise. Depp is great and has brought a wonderful consistency to his character throughout the entire franchise; newcomers Cruz and McShane (who plays Blackbeard) hold their own and are vibrant enough characters to sustain interest throughout. Geoffrey Rush chews through the scenery yet again as Barbossa, though, more noticably than the other returning cast members, he doesn't seem to be having as much fun this time around. I'm a big fan of the music, but even that left me a bit disappointed considering talks of Rodrigo y Gabriela's contributions to Hans Zimmer's score were greatly exaggerated: the blistering guitar duo is abysmally underutilized. 

So with all of that said, did this movie entertain me enough to line up for another one in the series? Sure, as long as Depp continues to remain the focus of the series. Captain Jack Sparrow is such a fun role for him, and I really enjoyed his chemistry with Penelope Cruz. So if those two are front and center in Pirates 5, I'm totally willing to go along for the ride. I'm just hoping they can tighten everything up a bit next time around. Until next time...

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