Film Review with Robert Mann – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 3D ***
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 2D ***

When it was originally greenlit way back in 2001, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film was considered to be something of a wildcard in terms of its likely box office performance. Previously, pirate movies had never exactly been ones to really set the box office alight, as evidenced by the colossal box office failure of 1995’s Cutthroat Island, and the idea of a blockbuster movie being based off a ride at Disneyland hardly seemed liked the makings of a multi-billion dollar movie franchise. Yet, by the time Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in cinemas, it had become one of summer 2003’s most eagerly anticipated blockbusters and went on to be a huge commercial and critical success, not one but two sequels being swiftly greenlit, and, with the huge success of the first film, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski being given free rein to do pretty much whatever they wanted on the back to back follows ups Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
The result of this was a somewhat mixed reception upon the release of both films in cinemas. While moviegoers were extremely appreciative of the sequels, spending almost $2 billion combined in worldwide box office takings, critics found much to dislike about the admittedly very self indulgent follow ups to the more basic and straightforward first film. While this critic was not one of those who trashed the films (in fact I rather enjoyed them), many critics heavily criticised the bum numbing running times, the convoluted plots, the overloading of too many pirate characters and the massively over the top CG action sequences that afflicted both films, and, by the time the third film came around, even audience interest had started to wane somewhat, At World’s End still being a humungous box office success but not generating the same level of positive word of mouth that the first film had four years earlier. With many saying that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was either dead or in need of saving, it was at this point that Disney decided that a change in direction was needed and this is where the fourth movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, comes in. 

Picking up where the last film left off with the characters embarking on a quest to discover the Fountain of Youth but ditching the things that many felt bogged down the previous sequels – the running time for this film is 2 hour 16 minutes as opposed to the 2 hours 48 minutes of At World’s End, the plot has gone back to the more basic roots of The Curse of the Black Pearl, the number of characters has been massively cut down, the only characters returning from the previous films being Captain Barbossa, Mr Gibbs, Captain Teague and of course Captain Jack Sparrow himself while the not always popular character of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, as portrayed by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, have been done away with altogether, and the action has been scaled down as there really isn’t any way they could make it any bigger with the $300 million budget of the last film having been cut all the way back to $200 million for this fourth instalment in the franchise – the aim of On Stranger Tides has been to create something more like the original film than the two bloated sequels. To achieve this, there have been many changes both in front of and behind the camera. 

While the likes of Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally and Keith Richards are returning for instance, the other main actors from the previous films are nowhere to be seen with the rest of the cast consisting of actors new to the franchise, among them Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane as well as a number of recognisable British faces including Richard Griffiths, Roger Allam and Judi Dench, and, while original screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are once again on scriptwriting duties and Jerry Bruckheimer is producing yet again, original director Gore Verbinski has been replaced by Rob Marshall, whose previous directorial credits include Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine (alarm bells may be ringing for anyone who saw these films and agreed with the general consensus that they really weren’t very good). 

While much effort has clearly been made to return to the roots of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, however, there is one thing that really makes this latest film different from the first one (and, of course, the sequels), this being that, like so many other blockbusters being released this year, it is being released in 3D. Unlike many 3D movies as of late, though, this one has been shot using 3D cameras, although the visual effects have apparently been rendered in 2D then converted to 3D in order to keep the budget down. On Stranger Tides also has something else that provides a major distinction from the other films in the franchise, in that is not simply a sequel but also a sort of book adaptation, being loosely based on the 1988 pirate novel On Stranger Tides by author Tim Powers which told the story of a quest to discover the Fountain of Youth and also coincidentally featured a protagonist named Jack, even though the character was significantly different to Jack Sparrow. 

This film is not the first thing to draw inspiration from Powers’ novel, the LucasArts computer game The Secret of Monkey Island also claiming to be inspired by it, and, just like that game, the words “inspired by” are perhaps key to how true the film actually is to the book, the poster actually using the words “suggested by” rather than “based on”, suggesting that this probably isn’t a film to see if you’re looking for a completely faithful adaptation of the literature that it purports to be based on. Literary inspiration aside, however, most people won’t be going into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides expecting a faithful adaptation of Tim Powers’ novel but rather an enjoyable romp much like what was offered by the first Pirates movie. Is director Rob Marshall truly up to the task of restoring the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to its former glory, though, and will Disney Head of Production Oren Aviv’s hope that this film will be “the first of another trilogy” become a reality?

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth for some time now but his quest has amounted to nothing, the map that can lead him there not enough to get him there without a ship and a crew, of which he currently has neither. In London to free his long suffering second in command Mr Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the authorities who are preparing to hang him in the belief that he is Sparrow, Jack discovers that someone has been pretending to be him and is putting together a crew for a mission to find the Fountain. And the pretender isn’t the only one who is interested in the Fountain of Youth. Apprehended by the authorities and summoned before King George (Richard Griffiths), it turns out that the crown is also out to locate it and that time is of the essence if they are to beat the Spanish, who already know its location, to the most valuable of prizes. Commanding their mission to locate the Fountain is Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is now a privateer in the service of the crown, having lost the Black Pearl and his leg to Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the most feared of pirates who sails the seas without code or morals, and, believing that Jack has already located the Fountain, they need his assistance to plot a course there. 

Jack, however, is disinclined to acquiesce to their request and swiftly makes a break for freedom, his escape bid inadvertently leading him to his father Captain Teague (Keith Richards) who warns him about the tests that he will face if he continues his search for the Fountain. Soon after, Jack discovers the identity of the impostor who has taken his name, one Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a con artist with whom Jack has a very personal history, her being the only woman he may have ever truly loved. Finding himself captured by his manipulative old flame, he becomes a prisoner aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the pirate ship captained by none other than Blackbeard with an iron fist, him employing voodoo practices and zombification of those directly beneath him in the chain of command in order to assure complete and absolute obedience. It transpires that Angelica is actually Blackbeard’s daughter and first mate and she is out to save her father from the fulfilment of a prophecy that his life will shortly be taken by a one legged man by locating the Fountain of Youth to restore his life. Angelica also believes that Jack knows the location of the Fountain and he finds himself unwittingly going along with them on their quest. Before they can make their way towards the Fountain, however, they must capture a mermaid in order to obtain some of its tears which are essential in order to perform the ritual necessary to restore life at the Fountain. Mermaids, however, while appearing beautiful, are monstrous creatures that feast on the flesh of sailors seduced by their angelic appearance and capturing one is not an easy task. 

When they do capture one, in the form of the somewhat less than monstrous Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), however, she is not quite as expected, developing a connection with Philip Swift (Sam Clafin), a missionary who is along on the quest in order to help save Blackbeard’s soul should the plan to save him from death fail. Making way for the Fountain, they soon discover that they are not alone as both the Spanish fleet and the ship commanded by Barbossa are also closing in. But who will ultimately claim the most sought after of prizes and, when the time comes for Jack to make a crucial life or death decision, will he make the right one?

From the very moment it begins it is clear that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a very different breed of pirate movie to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that have come before it. A surprisingly slow instalment that isn’t nearly as fun spirited as its predecessors, being neither as exciting nor as funny as any of them, this fourth chapter in the series has an identity all of its own, standing firmly apart from the other films but not really in a good way unfortunately. The majority of the blame for this falls squarely on director Rob Marshall. Anyone who has seen his past efforts like the critically derided Nine and the not especially well received Memoirs of a Geisha will already be aware that his films to date have fallen far short of greatness and this one sadly joins them in proving to be something of a considerable disappointment. 

Less adept at action than his predecessor Gore Verbinski, he fails to deliver the level of excitement that is really called for here, there being too few action sequences to begin with and those that there are proving to be considerably less exciting than they so clearly should be. While a mermaid attack sequence, featuring mermaids that are angelically beautiful but also devilishly evil, is effectively taut and there are swashbuckling and swordfights a plenty, everything lacks the sense of fun that was present in each film of the original trilogy, the swordfights not having enough swash in their buckle – something not helped by the absence of Will Turner or a character truly capable of replacing him – a chase through the streets of London being nowhere near as spectacular or thrilling as it really needs to be and there being a major absence of sea based action of any kind. 

This isn’t to say that the action doesn’t prove entertaining but it isn’t nearly as entertaining as it should be. To give Marshall some credit, the film does at least look quite good, even though the reduced budget frequently shows, the scale being much smaller than the films that have come before it and the product feeling rather cheap when compared with its predecessors. The digital cinematography often looks good, even though the credit for that should probably go to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and period London is authentically and spectacularly captured for the screen with set and costume design in the scenes set there being extravagant, lavish and authentically detailed. Also, there are some very good touches here and there, such as the way Blackbeard literally traps ships in bottles, the Black Pearl among them and the Queen Anne’s Revenge – which is the main ship that features, the Black Pearl not being seen at all outside of a scene where we see it imprisoned in a bottle – is a fearsome vessel, being an appropriately foreboding presence on screen, certainly matching the likes of the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman for a sense of threat and menace. The visuals in themselves may look good, though, but the 3D here proves to be something of a letdown.

For a film shot in the medium (rather than converted in post production), the 3D is surprisingly underwhelming and, despite being planned for and shot in 3D, much of it really doesn’t feel like it was designed or created with 3D in mind at all. Despite the promise of the trailer for fun out of the screen 3D the gimmicky potential of 3D is rarely exploited here, the potential in one scene to have a snake come out of the screen being completely ignored while very few opportunities are even provided for 3D that pops out at the audience. There are indeed moments that do showcase this kind of 3D – certainly establishing this film to be miles better in terms of its 3D than most 3D conversions – such as mist floating out of the screen over the studio ident at the start of the film, burnt coals falling off the back of a cart towards the camera, Blackbeard’s ship firing flames right at the screen, the bony hand of a skeleton reaching out towards the audience and, on several occasions, swords being poked right out at us, but these are too few to redeem the film for its failings in terms of beyond the screen 3D. 

While individual shots of period London and a forest covered island are quite spectacular in 3D, the streets of London, the interior of a giant stately room and much of the forest island appearing to really exist beyond the cinema screen, and there are some other effective applications of the extra dimension, including an underwater shot of mermaids swimming up towards boat and a shot that shows droplets of water filling the air, the 3D for the most part fails to stand out, depth being clearly visible much of the time yet adding next to nothing to the experience. Part of the reason for this is that 3D isn’t utilised nearly enough – something which might be expected for a conversion that was shot without 3D in mind but isn’t really forgivable for a film that was planned to be 3D from the beginning – but the main culprit is really the misguided decision to have much of the film take place at night. While the 3D in the daylight scenes generally looks quite decent, the visuals in the night time scenes are far too dark, the tint of the 3D glasses darkening the image way too much. So, while there are some occasional instances of 3D that do prove quite spectacular, the majority of it ends up seeming pointless, the 3D impact being heavily lost in the night time scenes, of which there are far too many, and also the surprisingly high number of dialogue based scenes, talky scenes getting no benefit from being in 3D whatsoever. Demonstrating that a film being shot in 3D provides no guarantee that the 3D will be great, this is a film you’d be best off just seeing in 2D.

The film’s flaws don’t end with the 3D either. While the storyline, which is far more straightforward and less convoluted than in the last two films, is generally solid, it fails to be truly engaging, often feeling somewhat dragged out – London provides a refreshing change of setting, for instance, but far too much time is spent there – and suffering somewhat as a result of its emphasis on characters. Very Jack-centric – he even gets a sort of romantic interest this time – the film actually suffers for losing characters like Will and Elizabeth. With the considerably reduced number of characters, the question has to be raised as to whether there are in fact too few characters, or perhaps the problem is rather that many of the characters that are present are not nearly interesting or engaging enough. 

On a recent TV interview, Geoffrey Rush stated that having fewer pirate characters meant that they could focus more on the characters that do feature but sadly less characters here doesn’t seem to have made the ones that are present any better presented. Jack Sparrow may be as bold and crazy as ever but Barbossa seems somewhat underused, Philip and Syrena are a poor replacement for Will and Elizabeth, Blackbeard somehow feels less menacing a villain than the likes of Barbossa and Davy Jones in the previous films and even Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg’s Ragetti and Pintel are missed. Outside of Jack Sparrow, the character development here isn’t all that great, new characters like Philip and Syrena largely seeming like throwaway roles and even Angelica and Blackbeard seeming somewhat lacking in the manner in which they are presented, plenty being revealed about Angelica’s prior history with Jack but not enough being shown in the here and now depicted on screen. Additionally, the Spanish barely feature at all, their leader being a non character who isn’t developed in the slightest and them ultimately feeling rather superfluous to the plot, which could have worked perfectly effectively without them even being in it, as a result. 

Fortunately, the easy to follow plot holds together for the duration and the featuring and exploitation of more myths of the sea and memes of pirate lore is very welcome. Just like the other films, there is also some very humorous dialogue – the line “Does this face look like it’s been to the Fountain of Youth?”, playfully delivered by Keith Richards, being a good example – and the film does prove to be funny on several occasions, if not nearly as much as in the films before it. Despite flaws with regard to character development, the acting is also generally very good. Johnny Depp is on top form as per usual, delivering an enjoyably playful performance and perfectly portraying a sense of insanity in Jack Sparrow while also capturing the essence of someone who isn’t quite as crazy as he appears as well as nailing his character’s trademark swagger once again. 

While the chemistry between her and Depp is somewhat lacking, thus making it difficult to truly buy the idea of Jack actually being in love with Angelica, Penelope Cruz delivers a performance that is both suitably seductive and appropriately tough. And playing a pirate who is rightfully feared, Ian McShane makes for a very effective villain if one that isn’t quite as threatening as his character’s reputation suggests. Geoffrey Rush, meanwhile, does a great job yet again but sadly spends a lot of the film in the background – as I said this film is very Jack-centric and that means virtually all the characters take a backseat to him. As for Sam Clafin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey, they make a cute couple but ultimately fail to prove remarkable in any way, just seeming like a poor substitute for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Finally, the likes of Richard Griffiths, Roger Allam and Judi Dench are barely seen, their roles really turning out to be little more than cameos. 

So, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a pretty big disappointment all round really. There are plenty of good elements within it but the many changes that have been made have not returned the film to the simplicity and sense of fun of the original and in fact many of the things that were criticised in the previous sequels are sorely missed. A film that looks pretty good but is far too slow paced and nowhere near as fun as it clearly thinks it, the franchise has not been returned to greatness and in fact this is the weakest Pirates of the Caribbean movie yet. A solid popcorn movie then but perhaps it is time that that the ship sailed on this movie franchise.

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Employment Experts 23rd May 2011

    First review that I actually agree with. Firstly, more exposition needed with regards to Blackbeard, his use of the vodun, and how that applies to the zombies. Secondly, gratuitous side-plot romance is gratuitous.

    Apart from both those things, this movie was definitely better than par for the course. It truly does not deserve the hatred and vitriol that so many are slinging at it.

  • Free Online Astrology 23rd May 2011

    I saw it Friday, and I liked it. It seemed to be missing something or had too much of something but I really liked it. I loved the Mermaids!! Johnny is wonderful of course!

  • Atlanta Roofing 24th May 2011

    It’s amazing! They always produce a great movie. Johnny Depp is always a great actor. It’s just sad that both Keira and Orlando are not cast anymore on this movie.

  • Great Outdoors 24th May 2011

    The movie was great. I saw it Friday, and I liked it. It seemed to be missing something or had too much of something but I really liked it. I loved the Mermaids!! Johnny is wonderful of course!


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