When I heard they were making a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I winced. I didn’t think there was any way the filmmakers could recover from the debacle that was “At World’s End” – and considering that Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom were being jettisoned from this installment, things didn’t look good for Captain Jack. (I’d also read the supposed source material – Tim Powers’ 1987 pirate novel “On Stranger Tides” – and was not impressed). Yet I still held out hope for the franchise…and I knew I’d be seeing it anyway, no matter how bad it was.
It seems that my faith has been rewarded. “On Stranger Tides,” while still not as good as the original, is vastly superior to both “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End.” Part four manages to recapture the zest of “Curse of the Black Pearl,” turning what could have been a disaster into a very serviceable summer adventure.
“On Stranger Tides” begins with Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) escaping from royal custody in London. Shortly thereafter, he meets up with old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz), hoping to assemble a crew to search for the Fountain of Youth. He is subsequently shanghaied and pressed into the service of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), Angelica’s father. A three-way race for the Fountain begins, as both British and Spanish forces pursue Blackbeard. In order for the Fountain’s ritual of immortality to properly work, however, several ingredients are required: the silver chalices of conquistador Ponce de Leon, and the tear of a mermaid. The quest for these elements – as well as for the Fountain itself – drives the plot.
It all sounds unbelievably hokey – and it certainly is. But the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise succeeds because of its sheer outrageousness…and its strongest moments come when it fully embraces its action-comedy tone. Many of the problems in the most recent installments (parts 2 and 3) stem from an unwillingness to accept the series’ inherent ridiculousness. These movies shouldn’t be taken seriously, and too much melodrama invariably leads to disastrous filmmaking. “On Stranger Tides” works because it tosses out so many of the plot elements that failed in parts 2 and 3. Gone are the constantly shifting allegiances, laughably overdone mythology, and gargantuan CGI set pieces. This fourth installment is a cleaner, smoother film that recaptures some of the charm of the original.
After somewhat disappointing performances in “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End,” Johnny Depp is back in fine fettle as Jack Sparrow. The addition of a love interest (Angelica) is a great help here – it allows Jack to display more roguish charm, rather than serve as an awkward third wheel to the Will/Elizabeth relationship. Depp and costar Cruz have strong chemistry, which makes their love-hate relationship an effective plot device. And while Ian McShane’s Blackbeard isn’t as strong a villain as Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), he’s still a valid antagonist for Jack.
The worldview of the Pirates of the Caribbean films has always been somewhat problematic. The first several films of the series affirmed that both virtue and vice are fundamental aspects of the human condition (essentially, humans do not need salvation, but must simply come to terms with their own inner “pirates”). A strongly postmodern view of ethics (as purely situational) pervaded all three movies, especially “At World’s End.”
Notably, “On Stranger Tides” finally introduces a moral center for the series. The Christian faith of missionary Philip Swift (a former prisoner of Blackbeard) is portrayed in a remarkably positive light – his views on forgiveness, love, and compassion translate into praiseworthy actions. His Christianity isn’t mocked; rather, it’s treated with surprising graciousness and respect. Though Jack Sparrow and company are still “scoundrels to the core,” they don’t ridicule Philip’s convictions.
On a slightly different level, all four films in the series have reflected some aspect of an eternal theme: man’s struggle against death. While a Spanish commander proclaims boldly, “Only God can grant eternal life, not this pagan water,” none of the four films offer a clear perspective on this concept. While any sense of absolute truth is ambiguous at best, this element certainly does make for some interesting talking points.
Objectionable content is primarily found in the form of frequent double entendres (mostly between Jack and Angelica), some scantily clad mermaids, and a heaping helping of adventure violence. It earns its PG-13 rating, but isn’t any more objectionable than previous installments.
Should you see it?
If you (like me) have seen all three previous films, “On Stranger Tides” might just restore your faith in the franchise. It’s much more fun than the bloated, convoluted second and third installments, and it succeeds as a rousing summer action movie. If you’re looking for a deep, complex story with nuanced characters, “On Stranger Tides” probably isn’t your best bet.
But if ye’ve been waitin’ for a rollicking sea yarn, ye’ll find much to like here.
A surprisingly strong fourth installment in the aging “Pirates” franchise.
Normalized Score: 4.6