Thursday, May 25, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' (2011)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

When I initially reviewed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I declared it an improvement over Gore Verbinski's bloated and convoluted second and third movies in the series, but watching all of the Pirates movies again in close proximity this week, I have to say I slightly prefer Verbinski's ridiculous (but visually inventive) messes over this dull, workmanlike movie, which doesn't even have the spark of a boondoggle. Directed by journeyman Rob Marshall, who can bring some life to the right sort of material (his Oscar-winning Chicago may be overrated, but it's still quite entertaining), On Stranger Tides has the mark of everyone involved going through the motions, from the money-hungry studio to the director looking to branch out to the supporting actors passing time in a big blockbuster before they can get back to more interesting work. Johnny Depp finally gets to make Jack Sparrow the sole main character, but even he doesn't seem to be particularly invested in this installment.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio return, but they come up with a much more straightforward story this time (based very loosely on an unrelated novel by Tim Powers), with a clear goal and characters whose agendas mostly make sense (although there are still the requisite double-crosses). As briefly set up by the end of the last movie, both Jack and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa are searching for the Fountain of Youth, although since it took a few years for this movie to get made, their respective quests have been somewhat derailed as the movie opens. After a protracted London-set opening, Jack ends up back at sea under the command of yet another mythical, supernaturally powered pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose daughter and first mate Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is Jack's former lover. Barbossa, meanwhile, has gone legit, and is searching for the Fountain on behalf of the British crown. Both are attempting to beat the Spaniards to the finish line, although the presence of the Spanish crew is mostly pointless, since none of them become relevant (or even, as far as I could tell, named) characters, and don't have any bearing on the action until the very end.

Poor Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann don't get so much as a mention here, and most of Jack and Barbossa's previous stalwart crew members are absent as well (aside from Kevin R. McNally as Jack's trusty first mate Gibbs, who still disappears for long stretches). It makes the movie feel curiously underpopulated, even with the various new villains. Marshall also lacks Verbinski's talent for spectacle, and the action sequences are universally underwhelming, without any big sea battles. Much of the movie takes place on land, and the entire final act features the characters trudging through the jungle, with a climactic sword battle among a bunch of shrubbery. It's a far cry from the epic clashing of armadas in At World's End.

To sort of replace Will and Elizabeth, the filmmakers throw in a half-hearted romantic subplot for a religious missionary, a member of Blackbeard's crew who falls in love with a mermaid. Sam Claflin and Astrid Berg├Ęs-Frisbey are completely bland as the pair of young lovers, and their story doesn't get going until more than halfway through the movie. It's not quite clear why Claflin's Bible-toting character ended up as part of a pirate crew, nor why the unnamed mermaid (whom he dubs Syrena) rejects the monstrous ways of her race, whose main purpose seems to be to kill and devour humans. Their story ends with her whisking him away to the depths, without any indication of where they're going or how she might save him from a mortal wound. They're not set to appear in the next movie, and the majority of this forgettable installment seems destined to be ignored in the overall Pirates mythos.

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