Review: ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’

For (maybe) the last time: Yarrr. Walt Disney Pictures
For (maybe) the last time: Yarrr. Walt Disney Pictures

1. "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is as by-the-numbers as you expect it to be, big glossy "entertainment" that takes no risks, hits all the marks it's supposed to hit and doesn't want to cause any trouble. There's something inherently cynical about that -- this is a cash grab, from beginning to end -- but the movie's never particularly offensive about it. This is sleek and well-put-together and completely pointless. This is the fourth movie of one of the most successful franchises of all time. If the worst thing I can say about it is "it appears to exist only to make money," well, if I dismissed every movie that only existed for that reason, I wouldn't enjoy my time at the movies very often.

2. The first "Pirates of the Caribbean" was an undeniable joy, if just because of the looped-out tomfoolery of Johnny Depp, whose zonked right-angle takes on his roles, at last, jived perfectly with what the part, and the movie, needed. (This is a general issue with Depp, who always seems to be acting in his own private film rather than engaging with the movie he happens to be in.) Depp lost a lot of his charm in the second and third films, partly because they were so unnecessarily overplotted and partly because Jack Sparrow has a Bugs Bunny problem. The Bugs Bunny problem, as so eloquently described by Jamie Weinman in McLeans, is that it's nearly impossible to write for Bugs Bunny; as she wrote, "The classic Bugs Bunny structure is sort of prologue followed by
extended resolution: someone bothers Bugs (hunting for him or otherwise
pissing him off), and Bugs spends the rest of the cartoon finding
escalating ways to display his superiority over the opponent. Moments
when Bugs loses the upper hand are very rare, and his opponents are
almost always morons who pose no serious threat." Bugs and Sparrow are similar in this way; they're both sort of disengaged from everything going on around them. This makes them both extremely appealing, but also dramatically inert; if they don't care about what's going on, why should we? This worked in the first film, because the movie wasn't really about Sparrow; he was extended comic relief. But placing him at the center of the plot makes it difficult to establish much narrative propulsion. Just watching Depp have fun playing Sparrow is more entertaining than any plot Sparrow might find himself bogged down in.

3. That's the central problem of "On Stranger Tides"; Depp's the star of these movies now, and it doesn't make much sense that such a borked antihero would bother with any of the plot in the first place. (You keep expecting him to disappear halfway through, with a "gone to get grog" note left inside a sea crab.) The movie does its best to tie him down, casting an alluring Penelope Cruz as an old love interest, bringing along an old foe in Geoffrey Rush and giving him a foil in Ultimate Pirate Blackbeard. The whole plot is almost an extended excuse, constructed just to justify Sparrow being the lead in his own film. I still didn't quite buy it: every time the movie zigs to make him a conventional hero, Depp zags and does something off-rhythm. It keeps the movie moving along, but it makes it difficult to invest much capital in the proceedings.

4. The movie doesn't come up with much new -- the plot is about the search for the Fountain of Youth -- which is such a hoary premise by now that I fully expect Optimus Prime to start looking for it -- but it does have one dazzling set piece: At one point, some of our voyagers realize that they need the tear of a mermaid. (Don't ask.) So they beckon the mermaids, and when they arrive, they're truly astounding creatures, gorgeous but mean, delicate on sight but ruthless and tough at their core. The film has far fewer CGI shots than you'd expect from a tentpole like this -- it's mostly just sword fights and derring-do -- but the mermaids are rendered beautifully, poetic and fierce, relentless, a riveting action sequence that comes out of nowhere. The movie just sort of moves on from it -- sadly, one mermaid ends up in looooooove, the softy -- but if there's one thing you'll remember from "On Stranger Tides," it'll be those mermaids.

5. It'll be the only thing. It's tempting to say this series is out of steam and should end, considering this film is superior to the last two, mainly because it dispenses with that boring Bloom-Knightley bland-off all together. It's more accurate to say that "On Stranger Tides" is precisely the movie this series should be producing now, a generic, harmless spectacle with the added bonus of Johnny Depp goofing off. If they make another one -- and one has to presume they will -- it'll be wisely modest like this one, rather than inanely "ambitious" like the second two. I can't say I'm particularly looking forward to it, but there are worse crimes against the Republic. No harm, no foul, really.

Grade: C+