So, we come to On Stranger Tides after our long-ass retrospective on the series. How does it hold up to the rest? Have I finally gotten tired of seeing Capt. Sparrow running around getting up to no good? The answers to these questions and many more, some you haven’t even asked and probably never would have, can be found in this review!
First thing’s first, On Stranger Tides is easily the weakest of the series. It is too contained and lacking the insane ambition of its predecessors to not feel like it’s lacking some vital component. If you’re any kind of fan of the previous entries, you’ll feel that lack throughout the movie with the possible exceptions of the fountain scene and the now-famous mermaid attack. Those two sequences feel very in line with the Pirates sensibility I love so much. The rest? Not so much, except of course for the characters and some of the humor. In fact, I was surprised to learn that this entry had the same writers as the previous movies. I suppose there was some pressure to “ground” the movie and avoid the sprawling mass of the previous movies. As such, familiar characters are sorely lacking (the dwarf guy, the mute guy and his parrot, the two silly pirate BFFs, etc) or have their essences compressed in characters like Scrum (Stephen Graham, who I was pleased to see in something like this after his stellar turns in Boardwalk Empire and Public Enemies). This feeling of compression and constraint is the major flaw in the movie as far as I’m concerned, but your mileage may vary if you hated the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach taken by 2 and 3.
The plot is only more straightforward here because there are fewer double-crosses and conflicting character motivations. This is the surest sign that they are trying to streamline shit. Basically Jack gets tangled up in a former flame’s attempt to save her father Blackbeard, a feared legendary pirate destined to die in a fortnight. To stop this from happening, they need to do a bunch of shit to perform the proper ritual for the Fountain of Youth, which Jack never knew and so couldn’t exploits. Meanwhile, Capt. Barbossa is now a privateer who wants to kill Blackbeard for slaughtering his crew and capturing the Black Pearl. Somewhere in the background but rarely, rarely seen are the Spanish who are also seeking the Fountain. Thrown into the mix are a captured priest Blackbeard keeps around seemingly for his own amusement and a mermaid who is needed for the ritual. They fall in love, of course, but if you were afraid this was going to suck up the kind of time and effort Will and Elizabeth did, you need not be. It’s a solid subplot, no more and no less.
One thing I did like, though, is that I expected the movie to be about Sparrow (many reviews claim so) but he is again left mostly on the sidelines weaving in and out of other peoples’ drama. The one major difference is that his motive has more to do with pent up feelings for Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and a vague sense of guilt about her than it does with selfish motives like living forever. Jack is a bit more grown up here in general, though his hair has taken on a more sun-bleached surfer-dude look. Even with his personal stake in things, the movie is more about Barbossa and Blackbeard and I think there was a real opportunity missed by not focusing more on this as a replacement for the Will and Elizabeth antics of the previous movies.
Barbossa, in his limited screen time, is again the secret weapon of the series. He is less light-hearted and crazy this time around, except when around Jack (I could seriously watch a movie with JUST these two running around doing stuff), and his haunted vengefulness is a chilling departure from who he was before. On the other hand, Blackbeard and Angelica have their own shit to deal with. The problem is that Barbossa isn’t around enough, Blackbeard is the worst villain in the series (what a waste of Ian McShane), and when they finally do meet to hash out the prophecy that provides the main motives for both Blackbeard and Angelica, it feels a bit on the perfunctory side.
Let’s unpack some of that. The reason Blackbeard is the worst villain is only because Barbossa, Cutler Beckett, and especially Davey Jones were such good ones. Blackbeard seems to do little in the movie. He is a feared pirate who preys on other pirates but we know this because we’re told, not shown. He is ruthless and mean, but doesn’t have any real edge to him and lacks the scenery-chewing broadness of other villains. He is boring and kind of safe in his purrrree eeeevilness and this is balanced with a weird bemusement with which he deals with everything that isn’t a chance to be a cruel jerk. There’s some notion here that his impending death has Angelica trying to get him to practice restraint so that he might be saved but it’s a slippery element they never pinned down in the script. Pirates has always had great, interesting villains. Having an actor like McShane is an opportunity to do something really special but it never happens. I guess he looks great in pirate gear, but that’s about it.
The salvation subplot I mentioned above brings me to one of the weirder elements of the movie: religion. Some amount of time is given to discussing salvation, repentance, and redemption. Angelica is religious, there’s a full-on priest character with an ichthyo-sapien fetish, and so on. Instead of not having it in the movie, I’d have preferred they’d gone broader and crazier with it if they were going to bring this element in at all. I mean, the movie could have gotten downright preachy if they didn’t make the Christianity so toothless but because it is left as a weird tag on things more than anything more significant, it just feels silly and pointless. They should have thrown in some real mythological stuff with it, like they have with the seafaring lore all along. Same with the voodoo/zombie stuff. It’s just… there. They don’t make much effort to connect it to Blackbeard’s power over his ship, which seems to be channeled through his sword, etc. In the previous movies, all this mystical stuff would have been lavishly explained and even reveled in. Which is as it should be. I get that they wanted to get some distance away from the side of the spectrum they were on with Calypso or how the Davey Jones stuff worked but they went too far opposite and ended up with mystical elements and mythology that doesn’t resonate and lacks a certain dynamism maintained by the silly, hilarious complexity I had gotten used to. What we do get creates a darker overall tone, which is odd actually, but not much else by way of broadening and enriching the background world and mythos of the Pirates universe.
For all my criticizing thus far, I do have to point out that the movie is a lot of fun. It’s a more tightly-packaged kind of fun, which doesn’t fit the series at all, but it’s not a lifeless husk like it could have been. Jack and Barbossa hanging out is awesome. The mermaid stuff is very awesome. The actors are again having tremendous fun (for the most part) and the movie leaves us with as much rope to hang a sequel on as the first one did. New characters have been introduced as well as some new McGuffins and so on. And I do hope they keep making these movies. If On Stranger Tides makes a huge bundle, and it probably will, I just hope they give Rob Marshall more license to go big again for the inevitable sequel.