Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides may be one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer – set to reinvigorate Disney’s theme park ride-turned movie franchise. Despite racking up nearly $2 billion in combined box office revenues worldwide, the last two installments in the original trilogy failed to capture the same magic as the first film. Sure they were epic in scale and tied-into historical pirate lore but each subsequent film grew increasingly convoluted as love triangles, multi-film betrayals, and one of the least satisfying act two cliffhangers in film history, muddled what was originally a carefree summer surprise.
To combat franchise fatigue, producer Jerry Bruckheimer enlisted the help of his Curse of the Black Pearl screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio who tossed out most of their prior character creations to inject the film with a lot of fresh and fantastical blood. But the team didn’t just bring back fan-favorite scallywags in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, they also introduced a smorgasbord of fantasy genre staples – including zombies and mermaids. Were the radical changes enough to freshen the franchise and pave the way for future sequels?
Unfortunately, even though it does successfully purge the series of a number of overly convoluted plot threads from the trilogy, On Stranger Tides fails to match the epic scope and entertaining set-pieces that many fans are going to expect – especially in the latter half of the film. Fan-favorites Captain Jack Sparrow and Barbossa both return but much like the action, the pair are watered-down versions of their prior selves. The film isn’t terrible – but at almost every turn, the returning actors and the updated plot come across as lazy or uninspired.
The story is especially tepid and makes no mention of the events that transpired in the original trilogy – none, whatsoever. Despite dumping most of the cast and significantly changing-up the formula, On Stranger Tides isn’t a spin-off or reboot - it’s a true sequel.
If you haven’t been following our previous coverage, the story picks up when Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) attempts to rescue his former first mate Mr. Gibbs from the British and is subsequently arrested. King George II forces Jack to help guide the British soldiers to the fountain of youth – and reunites the loony pirate with his other former first mate-turned-enemy-turned-friend, Captain (now Privateer) Barbossa (played once again by Geoffrey Rush).
The once treacherous pirate gets Jack up to speed, revealing that his beloved Black Pearl was destroyed in a clash with the notorious Blackbeard (Ian McShane) – who also seeks the fountain of youth. News of the Pearl’s demise sends Jack on a fearsome and over-the-top journey of revenge, treachery (of course), and adventure – not to mention new shipmates in the form of missionary Philip Swift (essentially the new Will Turner) and pirate Angelica (played by Penélope Cruz).
As mentioned, nearly every performance in Pirates 4 is a muted version of that from prior installments – both in terms of new and returning characters. Depp is still charming as Sparrow but, as a result of the streamlined plot, he isn’t given a lot of room to do much but react to the supporting cast. Jack was always two steps ahead of everyone in the prior films but this round, he’s mostly just a gofer. Similarly, like in prior installments, the writers once again attempt to set up Barbossa with conflicting motivations – to keep audiences guessing about where his allegiances may lie. Despite the rich history between the two characters, the film fails to remind audiences of certain preceding events - such as how Barbossa once again ended up captaining Sparrow's beloved Black Pearl. While the details themselves aren’t especially important (since they were covered in the prior film), the lack of connective tissue is noticeable and serves as an example of how one-dimensional the characters and plot are this time.
Any supporting character plotlines and connections, such as Blackbeard, Angelica, or Philip, are equally flat – be it family or love interests, the film does very little to make the audience believe the characters have any kind of genuine emotion or history, instead of merely serving a specific function in the story. It’s a let down, since (hate them or love them) many of the characters in the original trilogy still managed to surprise us from time to time – unfortunately, there are very few surprises in On Stranger Tides, characters or otherwise.
The most surprising aspect of the film is the unforgivable lack of action – especially in the final act, which is one of the most unsatisfying climaxes moviegoers will see this summer. On Stranger Tides opens with an almost “cartoony” chase sequence that successfully captures the spunk of Curse of the Black Pearl (even though it’s unapologetically over-the-top) and an early sword fight is reminiscent of the entertaining back and forth between Will Turner and Sparrow in the original. However, the subsequent sequences are not only smaller in scope than prior franchise highlights – they’re mostly just uninspired adventure movie clichés (i.e. large-scale sword/gun-fights).
The only action sequence in the film that feels fresh is the introduction of the mermaids – where Marshall actually takes the time to establish a genuine sense of anticipation and dread before delivering a unique and energetic twist on the mythological creatures. That said, the film ultimately fails to capture on the intriguing premise – as the overarching mermaid story is especially nonsensical by the end.
While there is fun to be had in On Stranger Tides and it’s exciting (for a moment) to see Captain Jack Sparrow on the big screen again, the entire production seems to suffer from exhaustion. The actors don’t carry the same enthusiasm for their roles, the once creative fight scenes have faded into ordinary action clichés, and the story focuses entirely on moving the plot forward without developing any of the characters or the larger fantastical “pirate’s life” world.
On a side note: do not waste the extra money on seeing On Stranger Tides in 3D. No set-pieces are enhanced by the 3D and the format significantly darkens the movie (which mostly takes place inside the hull of ships, dimly lit bars, and caves) inevitably hindering the immersion rather than adding to it.
If you’ve already seen the film and want to talk about various plot details without ruining it for others, head over to our Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides spoilers discussion to chat about anything that could spoil the experience for those who haven’t seen it yet.
However, if you’re still on the fence about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, check out the trailer below:
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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now playing in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D theaters.