Much like professional baseball players, the amount of “hits” collected by most movie franchises is relatively low. If a film series includes just one or two quality films out of a four or five chapter set, it can still be revered as successful. Once or twice a decade a Harry Potter or Indiana Jones steps up to plate and posts a softball like .750 or .800 average. The Pirates of the Caribbean series is considered by many to already be included or on its way to that exclusive league. That is until the team switched managers and moved the franchise to Pittsburgh, where predictably enough, the mighty Captain Jack has finally struck out.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth chapter of Disney’s pirates saga based on the famous theme park ride, picks up were Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, The Tourist) left off in the third film, searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. Jack learns that very particular and rare items are required to hone the power of the fountain’s rejuvenating waters and furthermore, he’s not nearly alone in their search. The Spanish have been sent by the king to destroy the fountain due to its blasphemous powers. Jack’s old rival and now privateer Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The Kings Speech), leads an imperialistic English vessel to find the fountain for his own personal agenda. And the most feared pirate in the world, Blackbeard (Ian McShane, Deadwood), must drink the enchanted waters before the prophecy of his demise by a one-legged man is carried to fruition.
Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow continues to act as Atlas and bear the weight of the franchise. Jack may be one of the greatest original characters in movie history, but On Stranger Tides exposed how severe the loss of integral characters from the first three films, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), has affected the on-screen chemistry. Depp’s charisma remains undeniable and audiences will not tire of watching Captain Jack get himself into and out of trouble for a long time to come, however it turns out that one of the major factors to the past success of these films involving cursed pirate ships, fish people, sea monsters and zombies was actually the underrated dynamic and juxtaposition Depp, Bloom and Knightley had perfected.
In an attempt to fill these gaps, Penelope Cruz (Nine) enters the female lead as Angelica, a jilted lover from Jack’s past for whom he actually harbors deep feelings. And Sam Claflin in his first movie role tries to carry the burden of morality as Philip Swift, a captive missionary aboard Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Regrettably though, these characters feel more like stand-ins than replacements. Cruz hits a flat note for the majority of the film as the scorned lover not to be trifled with, and is never able to duplicate the love/hate magnetism that so brilliantly worked between Depp and Knightley. As for Claflin’s Philip, he does manage to slip nicely into the honorable void left by Bloom. Amongst all the relentless lying and backstabbing in the story there is a great need for at least one voice of reason, which Claflin exudes with strength and believability. However, the comparison of Philip’s place in the story to Bloom’s Will Turner remains unavoidable, strictly limiting the character’s potential.
Geoffrey Rush thankfully returns to his role of Captain Barbossa for this film, although On Stranger Tides‘ “big bad” is Ian McShane as the formidable Blackbeard. McShane is intimidating from his first utterance, but his character was shortchanged in the script. Unlike previous antagonists in the series, there is very little backstory on Blackbeard and his apparent voodoo-like powers. Other supernatural elements also go unexplained this time around as the story expects the audience to simply accept them with brief commentaries on their inner workings and limits. The main reason for this change in m.o. may be due to the new body in the director chair for the first time in the franchise. Rob Marshall (Nine, Chicago) takes over for Gore Verbinskiand and sets a noticeably slower pace to the film. This does not meld well with the quipping nature of Captain Jack or the adventure to find the fountain, which itself is not as nearly as grand in stature or excitement as the previous trilogy’s plot lines.
The title On Stranger Tides was borrowed from the 1987 fantasy novel written by Tim Powers. Unfortunately, it’s also an ironic choice as the tone of this film swings and misses by a mile in trying to match the previous three in terms of amusement and ambition. Depp’s talents alone were just not enough to carry the weak story and sluggish pace presented in this installment. Perhaps next time around the producers can borrow Captain Jack’s compass and concentrate really hard on finding a better script.
Replay Value: 6.5
Total = 6.3 out of 10