Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

 The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (3.5/5)

The original Pirates of the Caribbean had the element of surprise on its side.  No one suspected that a film based on an antiquated attraction at Disney World would foster much entertainment value, and certainly no one thought it would become such a cultural juggernaut that it would spawn three sequels and catapult Johnny Depp to the top of the Hollywood A-list food chain, making him an international star.  I had been a Depp fan since childhood and had enjoyed his status as an idiosyncratic outsider, content to play dress up with his friends, and when I first saw a preview for Pirates of the Caribbean, I must admit that my eyes rolled and asked myself, what the hell is Depp thinking?  And then the movie came out.  Not only was the film filled with clever conceits, thanks in part to a screenplay that felt like the intricate work of an old fashioned clockmaker, but Depp turned in a surprisingly rousing performance as the effete, possibly insane pirate, Jack Sparrow.  Here was a multi-million dollar film and in the center stood a character fueled by pure id, stabbing other characters in the back in a moments notice while never letting the audience in on whether he does so out of a sense of self preservation or as part of a grander, more heroic scheme.  If there is a Falstaff for the 21st century, then his name is Jack Sparrow.

And then the sequels happened.  Weighted down by their ever expanding mythology, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End limped through their expanding running time while dragging along enough subplots for at least five more films.  At the beginning of the first film we are concerned with Depp’s attempts to reclaim his ship and the romance between Will and Elizabeth, but by the end of the third movie a major plot point pivoted around the unrequited love of Calypso, a tertiary character who would have been mostly forgettable if she weren’t played by the immensely talented Naomie Harris.  Where The Curse of the Black Pearl’s tight plotting and clearly established supernatural rules made it seem shorter than its two hours and fifteen minutes, the two sequels felt much, much longer than their already bloated running times.  I understand that the filmmakers were trying to give us a bang for our buck, but they also needed to learn how to leave the audience wanting more.

It is with these widely held critiques in mind that the filmmakers went into the fourth Pirates movie, On Stranger Tides.  And there are several elements that tell us that the movie is attempting to swing all the way back around to the original film in hopes of bottling a little of the magic that made the first film a runaway success.  First, Will and Elizabeth have been jettisoned from the film.  This is good news because these two characters seemed unnecessary in the last two movies, and it increasingly felt as if the actors had merely wandered onto the set because they had nowhere else to go.  Second, the film is only tenuously connected to the byzantine mythology of the last few films.  Sure, characters like Captain Barbossa show up, but it is not necessary to be intimately familiar with the details of his curse, death and resurrection from the other three films.  Both of these choices allow the film to focus on what really matters: the character of Jack Sparrow.

So, does the film actually accomplish what it set out to do?  Is On Stranger Tides a return to form?  In a word, no.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good time, and the film bodes well for the inevitable sequels coming our way.  Plenty of film critics have taken On Stranger Tides to task for not living up to the promises of the first film, and while their complaints are not without merit, I strongly believe the movie largely delivers. 

On Stranger Tides follows multiple entities as they each lie, steal and cheat in order to make their way to the elusive Fountain of Youth, first discovered and then re-lost by Ponce De Leon nearly two centuries previous.  The entries into this mad, mad chase are the Spanish government, a coldly calculating participant, the British government, lead by former pirate Barbossa, the cutthroat Blackbeard, and of course Jack Sparrow himself.  After a rousing opening escape from the clutches of the British, Jack finds himself tracking down rumors of another Jack Sparrow who’s gathering a crew in London.  The Jack Sparrow impersonator happens to be an old flame, Angelica, in costume, a play on Jack’s effeminate mannerisms as well as the plethora of Jack Sparrow wannabes that walk the street on Halloween.  A nun who broke her vow of chastity to Jack, Angelica doesn’t quite trust the pirate, but she needs the map to the Fountain of Youth, which happens to be in Jack Sparrow’s possession. 

Of course, there are a plethora of double and triple crosses that occur throughout the film.  Like a good magician, the film does a lot with just a little slight of hand.  Angelica can not exactly be trusted (or can she?), and Jack winds up in the forced servitude of the pirate Blackbeard, played with suave menace by Ian McShane.  Concerned about a prophecy about his impending death, Blackbeard is also searching out the Fountain of Youth, but in order to actually use the fountain, he must procure a tear drop from a mermaid.  In the world of the Pirates movies, mermaids are vicious creatures who put on a doe eyed veneer in order to, like the sirens, lure men to their death.  The mermaid segment is particularly well executed.  The director, Rob Marshall, uses beautiful underwater shots of the small boats that have gone out to lure the mermaids, while ratcheting up the tension.  We know from the reactions of the sailors that the mermaids are dangerous and they could strike at any moment, creating an air pregnant with tension. 
With the inclusion of the mermaids, however, comes one of the film’s failings, an unnecessary subplot that often tries the audience’s patience.  A young missionary character who has been captured by Blackbeard is dropped like a cannonball into the middle of the film for no particular reason.  We are told who he is thanks to some leaden exposition by Angelica, and when they do finally capture a mermaid, her and the missionary start making googly eyes at one another.  The mermaid and the missionary seem like they’re replacements for Will and Elizabeth, but unlike those two characters the audience has little investment in this couple.  The movie has a few other flaws as well.  The filmmakers regularly break the show not tell rule.  Captain Barbossa, for example, explains to Jack about how he lost the ship, The Black Pearl, to Blackbeard, telling him that Blackbeard’s magic turned the ship against its own men, its ropes cutting down the Pearl’s crew.  While he told this story, I couldn’t help but think, that would have been cool to actually see, but thanks for sharing anyway Barbossa. 

But despite these flaws, On Stranger Tides is a film whose desire to please is evident.  All the main actors do a fantastic job, even if McShane is elbowed out of much of the film by some unnecessary subplots.  There are also some great twists throughout the movie.  I won’t spoil them for you here, but let us just say that not everyone is searching for the Fountain of Youth for eternal life.  So even when the movie stumbles, it still entertains.  On Stranger Tides is not the return to form it so desperately wants to be, but it is a nice indicator that if we are going to get at least two more of these Pirates movies, then at the very least they will serve as good summer diversions. 

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