‘Pirates’ Walks the Plank

Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Let’s face it: we all thought that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film series ended with “At World’s End.” Although it didn’t wrap up the (then assumed) trilogy as smoothly as we had hoped, by then, most of us already had enough of Disney’s merry band of oceanic swashbucklers, who often tried our patience more than they entertained us.

Apparently, Disney thought otherwise. Considering that “At World’s End” earned over $960 million worldwide — which, by the way, is $100 million short of its predecessor’s gross — and was thus the highest grossing film of 2007, it’s not difficult to see why the studio decided to bring Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) back to the high seas once again for “On Stranger Tides.”

This time around, the creators headed in a new direction. They have recognized Jack as the franchise’s heart and soul, so this new chapter belongs to him — this is solely his adventure. Alas, there’s hardly any rum left in the bottle; his latest exploits fail to spark excitement and subsequently ring hollow.

An indeterminate period of time has passed since the events of “At World’s End,” and Jack is still being sought — but not just to be hung. He bears some knowledge concerning the location of the legendary Fountain of Youth, and many people are hell-bent on finding it.

After crossing paths — or more appropriately, swords — with old flame Angelica (Penélope Cruz), Jack finds himself aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which belongs to none other than the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane). The notorious pirate forces Jack to lead him to the Fountain, and hot on their trails are the English — led by Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) — and the Spanish, who also seek the mythical spring.

How ironic it is that the ‘treasure’ this time around is the Fountain of Youth. Mirroring Ponce de León’s efforts to find it with the hope of restoring his youth, the portrayal of the Fountain in the film suggests that “On Stranger Tides” wishes to replicate the critical and popular acclaim that “The Curse of the Black Pearl” enjoyed by showcasing more of the “Indiana Jones”-like adventurous spirit. However, the film falls so short.

Firstly, what the hell are the stakes supposed to be? Throughout the film, no real threat ever arises against Jack, so there are hardly any moments in which we feel that he is in any real danger. The only threat that he faces is death from Blackbeard’s hand, and Blackbeard barely finds it necessary to raise this warning. That being said, the film’s story becomes neither compelling nor intense at all.

In addition to a general lack of heart, the story is relatively cluttered, resulting in an uneven flow. At times, the film appears to be more concerned with the quest for the fountain rather than spending time with the characters, and consequently speeds through scenes of exposition and promptly takes its time with any scenes regarding the search for the Fountain.

Like the previous films, it follows several narratives by different characters to tell the story. Here, we follow the viewpoints of Jack and Barbossa, which turns out to be quite pointless because there isn’t much to learn from Barbossa’s point of view. If the creators wanted to make “On Stranger Tides” Jack’s adventure, then it should tell the story from only Jack’s perspective.

There are only four characters who are worth our attention and interest: Jack, Angelica, Blackbeard and Barbossa — everyone else is irrelevant and too easy to dismiss. Thanks to the other “Pirates” films, we already know Jack and Barbossa fairly well. On the other hand, Angelica and Blackbeard are new faces, and should undergo strong character development since they are also two of the main characters. Unfortunately, whatever information we are given is bare-bone; aside from knowing that Angelica was once duped by Jack and that Blackbeard is basically a bad man, we don’t get to know much about them, which is a real shame.

One thing that the “Pirates” films have always fulfilled is the promise of a grand spectacle, particularly a battle that takes place upon the seas, and this is undeniably the best aspect of the franchise. Guess what’s missing here? It’s not just that the film doesn’t have an epic battle between ships; there is no epic battle at all! Instead, all that “On Stranger Tides” offers as a ‘spectacle’ are a light-hearted chase sequence set in England — taking place in the beginning of the film — and an entertaining moment in which the pirates try to capture a mermaid, and both of these don’t really fit the bill of a grand spectacle that we’re expecting.

As far as the performances go, the cast doesn’t have very much to work with. Depp approaches Jack no differently than he has already done so and does try to grant the film some charm. Ditto goes to Rush, though he doesn’t have the domineering presence that he used to have. Cruz handles her material well, and brings a hot feistiness that was missing from Keira Knightley’s work in the past films. While Blackbeard is one-dimensional, McShane acts with a delicious yet subtle evil flair.

Rob Marshall’s direction is proficient, given that “On Stranger Tides” is his first big-scale adventure film. He manages to make the action sequences fun with fluid camera movements and admirable choreography, but there isn’t much he can do to conjure genuine excitement in the film overall.

Surprisingly, the film isn’t as loud or detailed as the other three. The lack of a grand, spectacular battle probably explains the tame sound effects. The costumes aren’t very elaborate, and makeup is limited to gold teeth and facial hair. Gone too are the extravagant visual effects, for there aren’t any mythical creatures besides mermaids, and since the sea itself is dormant, there is no need for restless, crashing waves.

If anything, “On Stranger Tides” was to be an indication of whether the “Pirates” franchise had some life remaining for more films. As it turns out, they should have ended it after “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” or at the very least, the trilogy. But will Disney heed this advice? Of course not; they’re reportedly developing two more. Yo ho ho.

Rating: 2/5 Stars