Eye For Film >> Movies >> Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) Film Review
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson
It's about four minutes before Jack Sparrow turns up. If anything else matters, then feel free to read on, but otherwise rest assured that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a genuinely entertaining outing for the series, managing to generate both novelty and surprise while preserving all the best features of the preceding pictures.
It's based on a novel by Tim Powers, a sort of fantastic alternate crypto-history, where the space between certain facts on record is filled with a quest for the fountain of youth. The key elements of the Pirates franchise were then crowbarred into that source text leading to its amazing "suggested by the novel" credit. Your man Jack-(of all trades) Sparrow designated as protagonist, chief exposition prompter, and sometime comic relief, away it goes.
It does so pretty relentlessly - we get Barbossa back, and he's got revenge in mind, and we meet Blackbeard and his "daughter" and some new folk to do things like tie knots and swab decks, and then there's the imperious Imperial Spanish and some things that are magical and there's the 3-D as well.
The third dimension doesn't add a huge amount, but it's currently de rigeur for big productions, certainly those aimed at family audiences. It doesn't do much for the set-pieces, not even the extravagant sword fight in a tavern's ridiculously cavernous back-room which seems to be trying to emulate Donkey Kong in its barrel throwing antics. It's not a horrific distraction either, however, and while there's a fair quantity of muck and mire it never comes near the impenetrable murk of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Nor does the plot - characters have been conflated from the novel and roles sprinkled between old and new faces, but the script by the same team of writers that penned The Curse Of The Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End manages to avoid the ever-escalating muddle of films two and three and get closer to the thrill-ride efficiency one would hope for in a film based on a rollercoaster.
There had been a real fear at Eye For Film Towers that the film was going to be all Jack Sparrow, all the time - a picture utterly dedicated to a single performance in the way that led our own Susanna Krawczyk to describe Gulliver's Travels as "Giant Jack Black In Tiny Person Town". On Stranger Tides manages to avoid this, but not without some degree of subversion.
The first, third, and fourth Jack Sparrows we meet aren't Jack Sparrow, and when Jack does show his face he's, well, 'disguise' might be charitable, but it's unfair to judge. While one of those four is a voodoo doll crafted by Ian McShane's Blackbeard, another (and considerably less waxy) is Penélope Cruz.
For all the fun that Depp's having, Penelope Cruz seems to be having more. For a start, she's one of the Jack(s) Sparrow, but in among the boats and the beaches and the magic cups and hidden temples there was clearly a whale of a time. Indeed, she's not only instigator of the plot, she is crucial to the little scene hidden at the end of the credits - credits worth watching despite a lack of 3-D or fancy graphic design for someone being listed as 'effects fisherman' and for wondering at Depp's personal sound technician. That scene, it should not surprise you to learn, would seem to set up a sequel, but given how impressive On Stranger Tides manages to be that is something to look forward to.
Richard Griffiths and Judi Dench both make small roles into star turns, Ian McShane manages a quite chilling degree of moral ambiguity. He could perhaps have done with a bit more sulfurous smoke, but if that was traded away for an enchanted sword then it's reasonable - they do at least have burning fuses in his hair. Keith Richards reprises his role as Sparrow's father Teague, adding a different kind of mystery to the various supernatural goings-on with a brief but tactically advantageous appearance. As leader of the Spanish fleet, Óscar Jaenada (who was in The Losers) manages a hauteur that Antonio Banderas might not have been able to sustain without a wink - with Depp's Sparrow about there wouldn't be room, and even among the mermaids and zombies there's something impressively menacing about him.
In a debut film role Sam Claflin convinces as a preacher kept as a toy by a damned man, and more musically Stephen Graham (Combo in This is England and Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies) is the maudlin lutist and other sometime comic relief, Scrum. The pair of them share an attraction to the mermaid played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey, ably switching between cocktail party charm and apex-predatory physicality in the water to fawn-like vulnerability on land.
Kevin McNally is Gibbs again (like a mutton-chopped Chewbacca) and Geoffrey Rush is Barbossa again but he's got one leg now and the more elements of the film are written here the more complicated it starts to look. However, it keeps a clear head - each phase of the film is very careful to establish the players, the rules, and while some twists are predictable other revelations are genuinely surprising. There's some degree of exposition, but it's usually subtly done - a variety of characters out of the loop and plenty of information to convey from a number of sources keeps it light, less obvious, and the actors are such that there's always something else that we're being told, if not out loud. Almost every major character has an independent (if frequently overlapping and inter-twining) story arc, and they are almost all satisfying. As a film it does tend to reaction shots, some of which appear to have been composed to accomodate the star's ability to commit to the shooting schedule, but given the cast that's acceptable.
Depp can probably, may actually, play Sparrow in his sleep, but it's clear he's having fun. In a moment that verges on meta-textual soliloquy he imparts information directly to the audience, before remarking, again to us, that he wasn't sure why he said that out loud because "there's nobody there". The fourth-wall stretching commentary extends further, the trailer-friendly line - "I will not be doing that again," and a snatch of song near the end.
Hans Zimmer's score is good, with plenty of callbacks to Klaus Badelt's work on the first film, and the song 'Jolly Sailor Boy' is well used too. The art-direction and special effects are up to the usual high standard - Blackbeard's ship in particular, The Queen Anne's Revenge with her skeletal figurehead.
The franchise's history is presumably familiar to most - a Disneyland ride turned into a film, two labyrinthine sequels and providing Johhny Depp with regular employment in movies not directed by Tim Burton. A role that Depp appears to genuinely relish, and audiences too - there is no shortage of fan service, but On Stranger Tides does an excellent job of giving us a fourth helping and remaining fresh. This is the first not directed by Gore Verbinski, but it's clear that Rob Marshall's first genre outing shouldn't be his last. He's helped by the sterling work on the earlier films, but just as the Harry Potter films were strengthened by changes at the helm, the course set for the fourth Pirates movie is a good one.
Where Die Hard and Alien(s) faltered, Pirates' sea-legs keep it steady. Given that its primary function is as a vehicle for Jack Sparrow, the real triumph appears to have been to ensure that the film would have worked without him - by cunningly making a good story into a Pirates movie On Stranger Tides ensures that its participant-observer privateer protagonist has an amazing and amusing adventure.Reviewed on: 14 May 2011