No degree in psychology is required to see that in eight years the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise has run ashore in a midlife crisis. With the jettisoning of many longtime lynchpins of the series (Keira Knightly, Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport), the acquisition of a crew of new seafaring scoundrels and the replacement of Jack Sparrow’s beloved ship, the Black Pearl, with a souped up model, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is clearly changing course and horse mid-stream. Unfortunately, for Disney’s blockbuster trilogy turned tetralogy, a soggy script and poor plotline weigh down the adventure in this latest installment.
Not to say that this newest release sounds the death knell of the franchise, for the opposite is true: “On Stranger Tides” marks a transformative moment for the series, where the filmmakers might excise the demons of the past (i.e., the morbidly bloated and reprehensibly convoluted “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”). Luckily, under the fresh direction of Rob Marshall, who replaces Gore Verbinski at the helm, this voyage clocks in at the much improved time of roughly two hours.
The journey, however, covers well-charted territory already traversed by the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. The opening of “On Stranger Tides” is ludicrously similar to those of its predecessors, with pirate trials in kangaroo courts, dubitable disguises and daring escapes that nearly succeed. Again on the run from crown and comrade, without ship or crew to his name, Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow must overcome the customary obstacles to reach his latest destination: the Fountain of Youth long sought by Ponce de León.
Hot on his erratic trail across land and sea is a detachment of the British Royal Navy under the command of Captain Barbossa, the Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush, in his most recent incarnation as a privateer for King George. At odds again after their uneasy partnerships in previous parts of the trilogy, Sparrow and Barbossa, along with Kevin McNally as trusty first-mate Gibbs, form the core cast members of the other three films that remain in “On Stranger Tides.”
In what must rank as one of the most weakly-plotted entrances in film history, the legendary pirate Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane, appears for the first time in the series, also in search of the Fountain of Youth. After escaping London, Sparrow wakes to find himself, like the audience, befuddled as to how he came into servitude on board Blackbeard’s famous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. A former love interest of Sparrow’s – Angelica, played by the finest addition to the cast, Penelope Cruz – fills in the holes from a night of drunken revels and reveals to Sparrow that she is the daughter of Blackbeard and that he has been brought on board to lead them to the Fountain of Youth.
The tribulations on the tides that follow are familiar to anyone that has seen another “Pirates of the Caribbean” film or trailer: mutinies, swashbuckling, and rum-swilling to summarize. While the dynamic between Depp and Cruz provides an intriguing element to the fourth entry of the series, Depp’s portrayal of Sparrow has increasingly sobered over the past two installments. Dialed-down and dialed-in, the Sparrow of “At World’s End” and “On Stranger Tides” is a shadow of the frenetic, manic and entrancing character that Depp first seduced viewers to the series.
“On Stranger Tides” violates a fundamental rule of narrative – it lacks a precisely delinted antagonist – and in doing so fails to land on par with the other “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. An insipid current is creeping into the series, and though it is hardly time to abandon ship, Depp and his cast mates need to redouble their efforts to alter the direction of the vessel for “Pirates of the Caribbean” to survive another summertime voyage.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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