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.
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