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

by HELEN GEIB

Q: Would I have enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides if I hadn’t seen Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and its first two sequels?

A: No, it’s a bad movie on its own terms. But it wouldn’t have left me feeling sad and a little mournful if I didn’t know what the series had come to. There’s nothing left of the old magic.

On Stranger Tides is a spin-off standalone story telling a further adventure of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). The other returning characters are Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally), with a cameo appearance by Barbossa’s monkey. Jack has a map to the fabled Fountain of Youth, but no ship. Also after the Fountain, and having a ship, is Blackbeard (Ian McShane). His first mate is the beautiful and fiery-tempered Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame of Jack’s. Barbossa captains an English vessel sent by the king to claim the prize. The Spanish are in the race as well, but contribute no characters of significance. A studly English missionary off a captured merchant ship and a lissome dark-haired mermaid round out the main cast.

For series fans, and indeed for anyone who has seen Curse of the Black Pearl, On Stranger Tides suffers from being a tired retread of the original film. Then the object of the search was to undo immortality, now it’s to achieve it. The pirate captains play musical chairs as Blackbeard takes Barbossa’s old part and Barbossa takes Commodore Norrington’s. The perfunctory “young lovers” subplot involving missionary and mermaid is the film’s inadequate stand-in for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Jack is still Jack and Mr. Gibbs is still amusing when he pops in now and again to provide comic relief.

For anyone out there who hasn’t seen this all before (and given the phenomenal commercial success of the Pirates franchise there can’t be many who haven’t), the plot, characters, and comic shtick at least have the value of novelty. For the rest of us, not only have we seen it before, we’ve seen it done much, much, MUCH better.

The action is much the same except it isn’t fun anymore, only manic. The warmth, wit, and good humor are gone. The jokes have coarsened. The script doesn’t develop the characters or relationships; it’s hard to imagine anyone caring whether Jack and Angelica get together (despite the sequel-hopeful ending), and impossible to imagine anyone caring what happens to missionary and mermaid. Of the new characters only the deliciously evil Blackbeard is memorable, thanks entirely to McShane’s scene-stealing line readings. The slipshod plotting at the climax is infuriating.

While the quality of the sequels has diminished with each entry, On Stranger Tides represents a precipitous drop off a high cliff. One of the two things that made the first sequels worth watching was that the chance to spend more time with characters we had grown to love. Most of those characters are now gone, the zest is gone from Rush’s performance, and our lingering affection for Captain Jack Sparrow isn’t enough to carry a bad film. The other thing that made the sequels worth watching- at least, worth watching in the theater- was the grand old Hollywood-style spectacle. Spectacle has been replaced with a lot of traipsing about in the jungle, CGI demonic mermaids, and fatiguing visual references to the movie we’d all have done better to have stayed home and re-watched for the nth time instead.

1 star

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Review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

9 responses to “Movie Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

  1. I’m of the school that the first film was terrific, the second was even funnier than the first and through its cliffhanger ending made me want to see the third, and the third is still my favourite one because it closed all gaps, answered every question, and has the best special effects from all three. And a terrific homage to Once Upon a Time in the West.

    I keep hearing that this fourth film sucks. It’s not disappointing, it apparently sucks so Helen, you shouldn’t feel alone. I’ll let you know what I think of it when I watch it next week.

    • I’m pleased to discover I know someone who liked the sequels. I enjoyed them both (although not nearly as much as “Curse of the Black Pearl” which I adore) but most of my friends didn’t like them, and some are positively hostile to “At World’s End.”

      • There seems to be a common theme that’s been in development in recent years: more show, less info. Remove the story, place a tiny plot, and make it flashy. The Pirates Trilogy has a gargantuan story that is entirely explainable if one pays attention and watches the triilogy as one long film. It’s one long story that exists between all three films and references itself back and forth and that’s what most people don’t get. They’re not standalone films, like the fourth one, and neither was the first one. That’s why most people dislike the second and third.

        Gore Verbinksy makes artsy films and that includes the Pirates trilogy. The Mexican is an excellent comedy and a unique take on the “rocky relationship” films; The Weatherman is a bittersweet, cathartic and untimately down to Earth take on the “broken family” films; and the second and third Pirates films are arty first and foremost. And so is Rango. I like Verbinski’s cinema and I knew that Rob Marshall would ruin the fourth film.

  2. This one didn’t feel as epic as the second and third Pirates films and in many ways that’s a good thing. I also wish they did more with Captain Jack, but Depp is always amusing as him, and I still had some fun with this enjoyable Summer blockbuster. Good Review!

    • I still feel a lot of affection for our roguish pirate, but I didn’t enjoy watching him this time around. I didn’t wish for Will and Elizabeth’s return (I like the characters and actors, very much in fact, but there was no compelling story reason to bring them back), but there needed to be some new character who could take their place as straight man foil to Jack’s wackiness. His antics mostly fell flat because most of the time he didn’t have anyone to play off against.

  3. Don’t forget the Zombies and the Hanoverians, who also contribute to this overly long and terribly unstructured film. By the time all of the characters made it to the island, I discovered I didn’t really care how it worked out. Now that Captain Sparrow is mortal, it’s time to put him to rest.

    • Cutting but I can’t argue with the verdict. “On Stranger Tides” has a lot to look at but nothing to care about.

  4. I suspected this one would be weak, but I did not know how bad it would really be. I suspect it will still make a pile of money though, if simply due to movie-goer inertia.

    I thought the sequels were weaker than the original, but I’ll need to see them all together sometime to see if I can catch the whole story arc, because frankly, I’ve missed it so far.

    • While I enjoyed the earlier sequels at the time, I have to admit I don’t remember much about the plot (aside from the fact of it being a two-part story); more a general impression of lots of running around and a bunch of new characters joining the original cast. They really looked great though.

      Sad (because I’d rather there wasn’t another one) to say, “On Stranger Tides” had a huge international opening. Personally I thought $90 million domestic sounded like a lot too, although it was reputedly considered “disappointing” within the industry because it was less than “At World’s End” opened with.

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