I cannot give a film a pass simply because it is fun to watch. There are plenty of really bad films that are fun to watch, but that doesn’t make them good films. Which is why to some degree it pains me to give the latest entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise a modestly negative review. It almost gets everything I like about the series right, and I must admit a certain affinity while watching it, but once you leave the theatre it will dawn on you that what you just saw wasn’t all that great.
At this point, I would normally get into the plot of the film, but instead I feel the need to take a detour to explain my thoughts on the other films in the series for my threadbare defence of this film to make any sense. I generally like the first film in the series which, while a bit overlong, is a fun popcorn flick that few people seem to want to make anymore. I detest the second film in the series, Dead Man’s Chest, with quite a lot of vitriol and the third film, At World’s End is deeply flawed but still manages a few moments of fun. The sequels to the original Pirates of the Caribbean are examples of the absolute worst in “epic” filmmaking and created a plot line that managed to become even more labyrinthine than Brian DePalma’s original Mission: Impossible and even harder to follow. I honestly can’t tell you what happened in Dead Man’s Chest other than the Kraken coming to lay waste to everything, and I really don’t care. I remember individual scenes from At World’s End, but if asked to recite the plot to you, I wouldn’t be able to. Quite simply, they were as unmemorable to me as the first film was oddly revolutionary.
What works, for the first two thirds of On Stranger Tides, is that the screenplay from series scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is going for a simpler tone. The story is, to be certain, crammed with elements that don’t necessarily need to be there for the film to work. The pointless subplot between missionary Phillip (Sam Claflin) and mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is a halfhearted attempt to recreate the romantic void left by the franchises departed stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knighley that never takes hold. By placing the focus on former supporting character Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the writers actually stick with what they know best. The best parts of On Stranger Tides feels almost like a bedtime story being told to a child. There are coincidences aplenty and not a lot of it could really happen in any sort of space time continuum, but there is an ambling affability to the film that fits the series newly minted main character. Unfortunately, the writers manage to screw the proverbial helper monkey and succumb to the same ludicrous plotting of the sequels and director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) does the movie no favours by botching nearly every action sequence in the film.
On Stranger Tides picks up some time after the events at the end of At World’s End with intrepid drunken pirate Captain Jack Sparrow on a search for the lost treasures of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth. It isn’t long before Jack finds himself caught between the British and the Spanish in a bid to find the fountain first. Sparrow’s uneasy ally and often rival Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is now working on His Majesty’s not-so-secret service as an emissary for the crown. In addition to being forced into helping the country that wants to see him hang, a jilted lover (Penelope Cruz) has resurfaced and also wants to find the fountain to grant longer life to her father, the famed pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, who is astoundingly the weakest link of the cast, giving a performance that is strange at best and disinterested at worst) who has heard of a prophecy that he will soon be killed.
If the film had enough smarts it would have stopped adding elements to the story there. That is enough story to sustain any average film, but then the film gets really silly when it adds a bunch of MacGuffins for Jack and company to find in order to perform a ritual for the powers of the fountain to work. By the end, the film has become just as convoluted as the films that preceded it. It is still coherent in terms of following a linear progression, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense by the end; everything I thought was right had been contradicted without explanation and some plot threads are simply dropped for the sake of wrapping things up. None of these films ever needed to be any longer than two hours, but this film continues with the ridiculously long precedent set by the sequels, and at two hours and 18 minutes, this entry is still the shortest by about 20 minutes.
The biggest problem with the film, however, is director Rob Marshall, who is clearly in over his head here. Outside of musicals that play to his “strengths” as a director (despite Chicago being largely a triumph of screenwriter Bill Condon and Nine just being terrible all around), Marshall should stick to his former day job as a choreographer. In fact, in most of the action sequences it is very apparent to the audience that Marshall is a choreographer. When people are jumping between horse drawn carriages or sword fighting, the audience isn’t supposed to hear or see the director giving the old “1-2-3, 1-2-3” for direction. As a result, a lot of the action sequences feel oddly shot in slow motion. Making matters worse, the fact that most action sequences take place in low light or darkness and are shot in colour draining 3-D. This, combined with sometimes necessary frenetic editing, makes Marshall’s hack work seem even more incompetent. The big climax at the Fountain of Youth is also devoid of almost any visual flair and amounts to a massive letdown that despite the film’s length feels rushed.
I would be lying if I said I did not have a good time while watching On Stranger Tides, but that doesn’t mean it is a good film. There are things about it that are just bothersome on a very basic level. Going back to the bedtime story analogy, I felt like a young child constantly asking “Why?” when faced with something that doesn’t make sense and then being told to just go to sleep. Even when I was younger that would have bothered me and kept me up longer than I should have.