Here’s a sentence I never once uttered: “Boy, I sure can’t wait for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie!” But, as I long ago realized, my opinions do not necessarily reflect the millions of other paying moviegoers. You know, the ones that the studios actually give a damn about. And so here we are, with yet another entry in the incredibly popular franchise based on a theme-park ride. Not too shabby for a series that many were predicting as DOA even before the first film was released.

Like most, I absolutely loved the first Pirates film. Heck, I still do. It’s about as fun as summer blockbusters get, and while I think that Oscar nomination might have been pushing it, there’s no denying the power of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow – one of the few movie characters that became iconic pretty much the first second he came onscreen. I was still on-board through the first sequel, which was perhaps already starting to stretch the idea a little thin, but still had a number of great set-pieces that made it worthwhile (c’mon, that sword fight in the giant wheel is all kinds of kick-ass).

And then came At World’s End, a dreary, water-logged and over-long finale that sunk the franchise under the weight of too much unnecessary mythology and a plot that was nothing more than too many characters double-crossing each other every two minutes. It was exhausting and – quite frankly – no fun. By that film’s end, I was more than happy to say goodbye to the series and just hold on to my memories of how exciting and surprising that first film had felt.

But, when a movie franchise makes gazillions of dollars like this one does, and when its lead actor loves his character as much as Depp does Sparrow, it’s silly to really expect an honest-to-goodness ending. So it’s no surprise that we have a fourth film. At this point, I’m more than willing to accept that I will someday be writing a review for Pirates of the Caribbean 12, which will most likely see Jack Sparrow battling pirate aliens aboard a spaceship version of The Black Pearl.

Till then, let’s concentrate on this one. This fourth film is an admitted attempt to try to leave behind the uncalled-for Lord of the Rings aspirations of the last film and instead return the series to its simple adventure-story roots. The film concerns Jack’s search for the Fountain of Youth (teased in the previous movie), a quest also undertaken by his old enemy Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a member of the Royal Navy, as well as a brand-new villain in the form of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), a particularly ruthless and bloodthirsty pirate with supernatural powers. Further complicating matters is the involvement of Blackbeard’s beautiful daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame of Jack’s who he can not quite figure out his feelings for.

There’s a fairly obvious problem with this movie, and it’s a big one. And that’s the elevation of Jack Sparrow to the franchise’s leading role. If the third film arguably suffered from too little Sparrow (made even more glaring by how boring Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters had become), then this one simply gives us too much of him. Sparrow works best as a comedic side-character who can weave in and out of the story and exist primarily to annoy and perplex the actual leads. Making him the hero unfortunately calls for him to become a little too predictable and heroic, which in turn robs the character of some of his edge.

I can’t really knock Depp’s performance – he is clearly still having a ball playing this guy. But the surprise is gone, and is not done any favors by further pushing him into the spotlight and having him inhabit the role of the romantic leading man. Something just seems off about it, and however the series progresses I hope the makers are smart enough to realize that, as lame as Bloom’s Will Turner eventually became, these movies still work better when a character like that is driving the narrative and Sparrow can just be an anarchic pest that shows up to create havoc every once and awhile.

On Stranger Tides is the first Pirates film not directed by Gore Verbinski – Chicago‘s Rob Marshall takes over, instead. Verbinski’s touch is definitely missed in the big action set-pieces; I don’t think Marshall has the same sort of visual eye for that kind of stuff, and while there are a couple decent “big” scenes (the best being an exciting sequence where a number of pirates are attacked by dozens of deadly mermaids), none of them have the same sort of visceral excitement as the best moments from the original trilogy.

I suppose that sort of sums up a lot of the film in general, also. I appreciate its less-is-more storytelling approach, especially after At World’s End, but the feeling of “been there, done that” sameness is a tough hurdle for this film to jump, and it really takes a while to start overcoming it. I found the first act to be fairly uninteresting, and started to worry that, in avoiding the mistakes of the previous film, they had instead gone too far in the opposite direction and forgot to have anything exciting happen. For instance, the film starts with Jack in London, a unique setting for the character that could have allowed for all sorts of new situations. Instead, the film lazily does nothing with the setting other than use it for a chase sequence – a chase sequence, by the way, that doesn’t feel like anything we haven’t already seen done better in the previous movies.

Thankfully, though, things start to pick up in the film’s second half, when the adventure part of story kicks in proper and the franchise’s more supernatural elements finally rear their head. Leaving behind all that confusing Pirate Lords and their councils nonsense, this one instead goes back to the more traditional “monster” territory of the first film, delivering zombies, mermaids and Blackbeard’s “living” ship. It’s all sort of goofy, yes, but also kind of delightful if you can put yourself in touch with your inner child. No problem for me.

Things get particularly good when Sparrow and Barbossa start to share a lot of screen-time. Barbossa has become the franchise’s MVP – ironically, promoting Depp to the lead allows Rush to inhabit the same sort of function and role that used to belong to Sparrow. I enjoy the scenes where these two turn it into a sort of anti-buddy-comedy (with two characters who hate each other). If, for whatever reason, Depp does someday decide to leave the series behind, I wouldn’t be opposed to a Barbossa movie…although I realize that might also overexpose that character and lead to some of the same complaints. Hey, nobody said this movie-making stuff was easy.

Meanwhile, McShane and Cruz are decent enough additions to the series. Blackbeard is not as compelling a villain as Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones, but it’s always fun watching McShane dip into a nice bad-guy role…even though a Disney movie like this doesn’t really allow him to get as nasty as you know he can be. Cruz’s role is sort of distracting – you can tell they’re trying a little too hard to make her Jack’s equal in order to justify his feelings for her. But she does what she can with it, and never outright embarrasses herself or the series. That might not seem like much of a compliment, but it’s more than Knightley could say in the third film.

Overall, this is an obviously unnecessary but not completely unwelcome film that is just good enough to keep the series afloat for now. I definitely think it could have been a lot better (it’s certainly nowhere near as good as the original or even the second movie), but at the same time I think it does do a good job course-correcting the series in a lot of ways. The first half-hour or so is kind of a slog, but once you get past that it becomes an amusing adventure yarn with a few really fun scenes and some great character interactions. A fifth film will have to find a better balance between this one’s too-simple charms and the distracting, overly epic machinations of the third movie. But at least On Stranger Tides has temporarily reminded us that these Pirates movies can be a good time when they stop taking themselves so seriously.

Advertisements