Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Aside from being an immensely lucrative theatrical hit machine, Walt Disney Pictures is also a bastion of direct-to-DVD sales. The studio has been able to brand its hallmark films so well that it occasionally churns out less-expensive sequels to its large franchises that are produced specifically for home entertainment. These sequels are often cheaper, less accomplished, and paltry in comparison with their theatrical counterparts, but are competent enough to entertain their core audience of young children and provide a steady cash flow for the company.

These straight-to-video sequels are generally for animated films such as Aladdin or The Lion King, but Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seems like an apt live-action candidate for the Disney direct-to-DVD library. The only problem: it is being released theatrically. The film is a lazy fourth installment of a series whose financial potential is probably still high but whose creative juices were drained after two tacked-on sequels to the quirkily charming and creatively visceral 2003 original, The Curse of the Black Pearl. On Stranger Tides, with its pedestrian visual structure, lack of spicy humor, and plodding, by-the-numbers storyline, feels like it was made for a less ambitious format. They could have packaged it as a silly side flick called The New Adventures of Captain Jack and made out like bandits (pirates?) in DVD and Blu-ray sales.

Johnny Depp once again reprises his legendary characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow, the wobbly, effeminate, rock-god of a pirate that is solely responsible for re-igniting the cinema's love affair with swashbuckling adventure. And truthfully, he is still great -- the film would run on fumes if not for Depp's injection of wicked verve. In On Stranger Tides, Sparrow is the film's sole focus, with the film freed of the Orlando Bloom-Keira Knightley romance that started as charming but grew wearisome with each subsequent installment. But in actuality, that romance, tired or not, brought a certain gravity to the earlier Pirates films, a human counterpoint to Captain Jack's loony antics. With nothing to ground the film, we are left with a screenplay that allots for plenty of Sparrow-isms but very little character development. In between uninspiring action sequences and interminable plot exposition, it just seems like Depp is prancing about for the camera with no goal other than to goof off.

The story in which Depp prances revolves around the search for the mythical "Fountain of Youth" -- everyone wants to access it, and Captain Jack knows how to find it. The point and purpose of said fountain might seem self-explanatory, and yet the film becomes so bogged down in its mythological minutiae that we never feel the weight of the discovery, nor understand its power. That wouldn't be so offensive if the movie attained the same level of sparkling quirkiness as did the original, but instead it is more cumbersome and less engaging than even the two previous sequels, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio try their best to develop characters with chemistry. Captain Jack leads the way, and is given a capable female foil in the form of Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former flame who is also in search of the Fountain of Youth. They find themselves on a ship commanded by unscrupulous rogue Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who may or may not be Angelica's father. The three mistrusting shipmates set out to reach the Fountain, while Captain Jack's old foe, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), stays hot on their trail. While they exchange cheeky verbal bon mots in a fashion similar to the previous films, all of the characters feel strained, and the story they inhabit feels like stale leftovers. 

It's important to mention that On Stranger Tides is also the first film in the series not to have Gore Verbinski at the helm. While Verbinski was busy pairing up with Depp for the brilliant and beautiful Rango, directorial duties for this film were handed to Rob Marshall, who makes Broadway adaptations like Chicago and Nine look dazzling, but whose talents don't yet extend to big-budget action-adventure. His work is nothing if not wholly competent -- safe, serviceable, and utterly pedestrian.

The same could be said for the rest of the film. Familiar characters appear on screen and the same Hans Zimmer score plays over every scene, but the magic from the earlier films is missing. Sadly, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides feels like an unnecessary grab at bonus box-office dollars, a paycheck movie for all involved -- even for Depp, who still digs into his iconic role with vigor, but who may need to hang up his boots after this. 

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