When last we saw Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), he was heading for the Fountain of Youth. When this movie opens, he has already given up his quest as hopeless, and moved on. Jack is in London, a captain without a ship, when he hears that someone claiming to be him is hiring sailors for a voyage. Upon investigation, the impostor turns out to be Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former flame of Jack’s who also happens to be the long-lost daughter of the evil pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). The two shanghai Jack onto their ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, because they think he knows how to find the fountain.
Blackbeard and Angelica are in a desperate race with a bunch of other people to be the first to find the fountain. There is also a Spanish group, which mainly skirts the edges of the story, disappearing for so long that we almost forget about them, and an English expedition, which is led by Jack’s old pirate nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has turned privateer and is working for the king.
Any good quest involves some magical items, and the movie dutifully follows the characters as they try to find two silver chalices from the ship of Ponce de Leon, as well as the tears of a mermaid, which are quite difficult to come by. The mermaids in this film are the standard beautiful ladies with strategically placed hair, and they seem sweet and demure, until they drag you under the sea and eat you.
Despite all the carnivorous mermaids (and evil zombies, and voodoo dolls, and exploding lighthouses), the movie is surprisingly leaden. It suffers from the same problems as the rest of the films in the series. It’s overlong and over-plotted, trying frantically to be lighthearted and fun while really being a bit of a slog at times. The movie puts forth a tremendous amount of effort to unload all the backstory and exposition needed to explain who the various factions of characters are and get them moving toward the fountain. By the time they set sail, the audience is already a little weary.
The film’s first mistake was making Jack Sparrow the main character. He was never the hero of the series. He worked best on the sidelines, alternately helping and betraying the earnest lovers played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, as it suited him. Making Jack the protagonist automatically takes away some of the character’s teeth.
Yet, despite putting Depp front and center, the film’s script, by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, doesn’t really give him any reason to be there. Sparrow doesn’t desire the fountain for himself, and doesn’t really care who finds it first. We don’t like any of the other characters enough to care, either, though the actors do what they can.
McShane is enjoyably evil as Blackbeard, and seems to be the only one in the film having any fun. Depp does the same Jack Sparrow shtick as the other films, and it’s still entertaining enough, I suppose, but he doesn’t seem to have any heart in it anymore.
Cruz doesn’t make much of an impression here, but she does have a particularly hard job to do, given how stupid and inconsistent her character is. Angelica idiotically wants to find the fountain for her father’s sake, because she wants to save his soul and seems to think that he can be redeemed, but it might just take a few more centuries to do it.
In an apparent effort to take the place of Bloom and Knightley, the film has given us another pair of bland, superfluous young lovers, in the person of Sam Claflin and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as, respectively, a missionary who somehow found his way onto Blackbeard’s ship and a captive mermaid named Syrena. We’re supposed to care about these two and their insipid romance, but the characters are wafer-thin, and their story has no bearing on the plot of the movie. I can’t even remember if Claflin’s character ever got a name.
The film is directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), who is taking over for Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three films. Verbinski’s energetic direction brought verve and genuine weirdness to the series, and if those films were overstuffed messes at times, it was because of an abundance of ambition, not an inability to tell a coherent story. Marshall, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be able to put together a decently paced, well-staged action sequence to save his life. He can’t even keep the film’s copious exposition scenes from stopping the story dead in its tracks.
The movie’s action scenes also often remind us of scenes in the earlier films— Jack swinging from the rigging in the first film, and the scene with the giant hamster wheel in Dead Man’s Chest, in particular—while paling in comparison to them. However, I did like one scene in which Jack and Barbossa have to stay on opposite sides of a precariously balanced ship in order to keep it from plummeting, but it made me wonder why so many of the action scenes involved characters balancing on things—rafters, barrels, carriage roofs.
Are swordfights not interesting unless the characters are simultaneously teetering on a precipice?
The Pirates movies were often lumpy and overstuffed, but at their best they were also thrilling and delightfully weird. On Stranger Tides inherits most of the series’ flaws, but precious few of its virtues. It isn’t all that bad, but it certainly isn’t good, and a combination of bland direction, a poor script and wasted actors, not to mention a general sense of fatigue and pointlessness, make us wonder how a lovable scallywag like Jack Sparrow could be at the center of such a hollow enterprise.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.