To get a sense of what Gore Verbinski achieved when he turned a Disneyland ride into a successful movie franchise, one needs only look at Rob Marshall’s new instalment, which has all the right beats but not the rhythm. With a runtime of two hours and twenty-one minutes, Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides is the shortest entry in the series, yet it feels about forty minutes too long. Mind you, Marshall has proven himself an accomplished director in his own right, so perhaps the producers were just pushing their luck with this fourth chapter. Perhaps there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
According to the end credits, the movie is “suggested” by Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, by which the filmmakers mean they took the novel’s basic story, written fifteen years before Johnny Depp made eyeliner cool again, and shoehorned his iconic character into the mix. I mention this without reproach, since the whole fun of Pirates of the Caribbean consists of watching Jack Sparrow wiggle his way out of situations in which he doesn’t belong, though it feels at times like the plot could drive itself with or without him.
In keeping with previous instalments, the heroes and villains keep switching sides during the quest, though their agendas prove easier to follow. Blackbeard (Ian McShane), for instance, seeks the Fountain of Youth to survive his prophesised demise at the hands of a one-legged man. As the main antagonist, he’s naturally got the most resources, including a sword that grants him psychic control over every part of his ship. This leads to an impressive set piece in which sailors are trapped by ropes and pulleys like flies in a spider web. Very cool.
We’re also introduced to Blackbeard’s daughter, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), for whom Jack once had “stirrings, not quite feelings”. The stirrings are mutual. As motives go, hers turn out the most inventive: she’s helping her father gain eternal life so she’ll have more time to save his soul. The catch lies in the pirate’s despicable methods. The closer they come to the prize, the more irredeemable he becomes. I usually don’t like Cruz in English-speaking roles (her Spanish performances are a different matter), but here she strikes the perfect balance between playful con artist and conflicted anti-heroine. Clearly, the actress gets what the series is all about.
Of course, the same can be said of Geoffrey Rush, who returns as Captain Barbossa, now sporting a classic peg leg, so you know where this is going. He wants good old-fashioned vengeance for the ship he lost and has struck a deal with the British Navy to locate the Fountain of Youth before the Spanish. Oh, yeah, the Spanish get involved too. Wouldn’t you know it? Only revealed in the final act, their true objective makes for a satisfying twist if a bit of a deus ex machina.
That leaves Jack, who couldn’t care less about the Fountain of Youth and spends most of the film trying to minimize the collateral damage. I like this new Captain Sparrow. I feared the character might regress in the context of a new trilogy, but screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have made his newfound altruism a key plot point, as Angelica keeps underestimating him based on prior experience. The drawback is Jack’s got nowhere to go from here. As a result, his arc feels a bit stagnant.
Mind you, I’m pleased On Stranger Tides doesn’t revisit Jack’s rapport with Will and Elizabeth, whose story was beautifully concluded in the previous film’s post credit sequence. We get a new couple to replace them though: Philip (Sam Claflin), a man of faith whom Angelica brings aboard in the hopes of converting her daddy, and Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mermaid whom Blackbeard kidnaps, tortures, and then leaves for dead. The conversion thing didn’t work out.
The mermaids are pretty cool. Reminiscent of the creatures in Takahashi Rumiko’s Mermaid Forest, they lure unsuspecting sailors with their uncanny resemblance to Amanda Seyfried and then eat them alive like rabid piranhas on the first day of an hCG diet. Syrena stands out for sparing the righteous, sometimes even saving them, and her judgment of Jack proves crucial to the film’s climax. Also, she looks more like Ellen Page.
Despite that, Philip strikes me as the more compelling lovebird, owing to his philosophical standoff with Blackbeard. Mocked and persecuted, he persists in preaching redemption, while the pirate pushes his personal brand of nihilism. Whether Blackbeard succeeds in corrupting the young missionary is the stuff of spoilers, but I love how the conflict informs Syrena and Philip’s final exchange, in which one speaks of salvation and the other of forgiveness. What happens next implies they’re the same, a notion I find both comforting and poetic.
It’s a shame, really. Like its hero, the movie brims with ideas but won’t stand still long enough to explore them. In fact, I suspect the problem with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides lies in its choice of protagonist. Jack Sparrow works best as a trickster who intrudes on others’ narratives, shuffles the deck, and walks away unscathed. Don’t get me wrong. Every minute spent with the rock star pirate is a hoot, but again it comes down to there being too much of a good thing.