Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides review

It’s been four years since the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was neatly wrapped up and sent off At World’s End. However, it did conclude by teasing audiences into the possibility of another adventure to seek the Fountain of Youth. The Curse of the Black Pearl had a killer concept of cursed pirates returning treasure, coined by the golden writing duo Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Yet their work for On Stranger Tides is credited as being “suggested by the novel by Tim Powers.” Not adapted, not inspired by, not even blatantly ripped off, but suggested. It’s as if someone had to put a story forward for them, because maybe they weren’t quite sure where to take a fourth film.

The opening scene sets the Catholicism in motion, beginning in Spain after a diary belonging to real life explorer Juan Ponce de León lands in the hands of King Ferdinand VI (Sebastian Armesto), which appears to detail the location of the Fountain of Youth. It helps that the Spanish Empire are introduced early on, since they’re largely forgotten about and serve very little purpose, aside from needlessly lengthening the plot a bit more.

It turns out that King George II (Richard Griffiths in a small cameo) has heard a rumour that manchild Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has in his possession a map to the location of the fabled Fountain, and is putting together a crew. Wanting to locate the Fountain before Ferdinand does (“I will not have some melancholy Spanish monarch, a Catholic, gain eternal life”), he brings the pirate in for questioning. However, Jack learns that there is in fact an impostor pretending to be him, and that his former shipmate Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is now working for the King.

After making a boisterously messy escape, things are complicated further when Jack is forced aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship of the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) who is also seeking the Fountain, along with his daughter Angelica (Penélope Cruz), with whom Jack shares a questionable past. With Blackbeard being in tune to the dark arts (he has muscular zombies working on his boat and a voodoo doll of Jack), his purpose for the Fountain involves coming across an ominous prophecy.

Director Gore Verbinski jumped ship for this one, to direct Rango and so in steps Rob Marshall. Having already bagged an Oscar for Chicago, his background in theatre and as a choreographer comes in useful. Jack does share a dance with Angelica, but given that Marshall hasn’t directed action before, Jack’s first sword fight has real splendour and grace to it (mirroring his fight with Will from the Curse of the Black Pearl). Visually, Marshall has an eye for detail. That the Fountain of Youth requires a tear from a mermaid, Blackbeard and his crew attempt to capture one in a scene that delivers some enjoyable scares. It works as a credit to the film when you start fearing for minor characters that have been set as bait to lure mermaids. It also descends to all out craziness when suddenly everyone’s lives are at risk.

As seen with Marshall’s previous films, almost everything, even some of the slightly more sorrowful moments, looks beautiful. Also, for a film that has been shot in 3D (no cheapo conversion here), the effect does bring attention to itself, mostly when Blackbeard is doing something shifty. His sword is thrust towards the audience more than once, and his final scene is a stellar example of well-executed 3D.

With Elizabeth and Will long gone, Captain Jack Sparrow is finally the lead character. “I still enjoy playing Jack,” said Depp. “There’s always more to explore in him.” Though we see Jack sitting suggestively on top of a cannon, he doesn’t quite blow us away. Depp has perfected the charm and the swagger, but four films in and the uniqueness is gone. There’s little in the way of bringing more here apart from his “stirrings” for Angelica, yet even then he rarely shows it. Nevertheless, as an iconic and enduring character, Jack Sparrow is still reason enough to go see the film.

McShane’s Blackbeard is a highlight, coming across as completely immoral due to his killing-for-fun (“If I don’t kill a man every now and then, they forget who I am.”), and showing no mercy. Cruz’s Angelica is essentially Jack’s equal and is just as manipulative, but remains largely overshadowed by Depp and McShane.

Sam Claflin has an integral role as Phillip, a missionary who for some strange reason has been kept a prisoner by Blackbeard. Infatuated with the captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), he clothes her and carries her, and goes so far as to naming her Syrena (which coincidentally means mermaid). Without giving too much away, he even manages to use his Bible to help her breathe. The Lord indeed works in mysterious ways it seems.

Some of the posters are a tad misleading, since there are no naval battles in this. Apart from that, just about everything else you’d expect to find in a film titled Pirates of the Caribbean is in here, but there’s a sense of it being pre-packaged with requirements. On Stranger Tides fulfils with swordfights, escapes and quips, even throwing in a few references to the previous films (King George II has “heard ofJack Sparrow; Jack jumps from a cliff avoiding rocks). It’s all very familiar, and as a fourth film it’s getting a bit generic.

It’s not the destination so much as the journey they say,” proclaims Jack, which loosely sums up the film, for after capturing a mermaid, the action starts to feel stale and the humour dries up. Or compared to previous instalments, maybe it’s just not as funny as it thinks, with only a dangerous bit of innuendo for a Disney film raising a laugh from me. If there is any discernible message to gather from the film, then it comes from a Spaniard proclaiming that, “only God may grant eternal life.” So depending on your views, you might as well take up the good book, put up with growing old, and accept that there is no fountain of Olay.

I love Captain Jack so much,” said Depp. “I would do Pirates 8 if they ask me.” Another instalment, or a new trilogy, seems inevitable. While Depp would do it, are audiences still going to be enthused? At 47-years-old (and Rush at 60), by the time an eighth film comes around it’ll probably be renamed Pirates of the Retirement Home.

Marshall proves that he is capable, yet his take has little that differentiates it from what we’ve already seen before. He plays it safe, or plays the way Disney has ordered him to. It’s like he is doing someone else’s homework, and you can hardly tell because he’s successfully managed to do it in someone else’s handwriting. It’s enough to gain a sticky silver star, for at least it’s not as convoluted as the previous sequels, but by keeping it on a steadily expected course, On Stranger Tides is for the most part predictable. All the same, it’s still quite the epic serving of extraordinary nonsense.

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