Even though Disney unceremoniously canceled the promising Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned last fall, production continued full force on both LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean as well as the latest cinematic outing, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." Hitting theaters today, "On Stranger Tides" is a step up from the muddled mess that was the third movie, but it never quite matches the magic of the original.
Disney made a good move in attempting to take the franchise in a new direction after the conclusion of the original trilogy. As a group, the characters had run their course, but Johnny Depp's Captain Jack was a standout star. Disney optioned a classic pirate novel, "On Stranger Tides," dropped in Captain Jack and went off to make a movie. While the idea was sound, the execution falters for many of the same reasons that "At World's End" lost its way: There are simply too many characters and not enough focus.
"On Stranger Tides" kicks things off with a courtroom, an escape, a double cross and a re-introduction of three well-known characters: Captain Jack, Mister Gibbs (Kevin McNally) and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). McNally plays the lovable Mister Gibbs with the same incredible amount of honest naiveté and loyalty that he exhibited in the prior films. Unflappable and always there when Jack needs him, Gibbs is perhaps Jack's only true friend and confidant.
Barbossa's return is a different story. Whereas Rush previously took hold of the character as a man who was both menacing and ruthless, in "On Stranger Tides," he spends most of the time playing Barbossa as a buffoon. It's a disappointing turn for the character who was originally introduced as an opponent that scared Jack himself. Barbossa would have been better left out of the story completely, rather than be reduced to little more than a sidekick.
Of the new characters introduced, both Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and Angelica (Penelope Cruz) are the only two who really stand out. As the pirate that all pirates fear, Blackbeard is the imposing villain that Barbossa used to be. Blackbeard controls his crew through a combination of ruthless fear and an enchanted sword that allows his ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, to come alive.
Angelica is played off as an enigma throughout the entire film. A woman from Jack's past who may or may not be everything she claims, Angelica uses a combination of good looks and intelligence to con her way into positions of power. Far from helpless, she's quite handy with a sword as displayed in an early confrontation between her and Jack. The multilayered relationship of trust and distrust between Angelica and Jack is easily one of the film's better threads.
Were these the only characters that "On Stranger Tides" dealt with, the story could have been tightened up considerably. Instead, the audience is also introduced to the devout holy man, a mermaid who can't decide if she wants to eat people or help them and a Spanish armada that only wants to destroy the pagan treasure. If all this sounds a bit like nonsense, it's because it is. "On Stranger Tides" simply has too many ingredients thrown into the stew, and that makes it difficult for any one element to shine for very long.
With that said, when the movie does hit a high note, it knocks it out of the park. Jack's escape from the castle, a fight aboard Blackbeard's ship, the cannibalistic mermaid attack and the final battle at the fountain of youth are all memorable set pieces that are sure to please any fan of the series. It's the long lulls in between those sequences, when the characters spend more time talking rather than actually doing anything meaningful, that nearly sink the entire thing.
"On Stranger Tides" is showing on standard screens as well as 3-D screens. We saw the film in 3-D, but the effect is minimal at best. The presentation doesn't gain anything from 3-D, going more or less unnoticed. If it's a choice between a standard showing or paying extra for 3-D, stick with the standard showing. You're not missing out.
Overall, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is bound to leave fans with mixed feelings. On the one hand, seeing Captain Jack back up on the big screen in prime form is always enjoyable, but on the other, it's obvious that this outing could have been a great deal better had the director and script writers exercised some restraint. Instead of a tightly plotted adventure that rivals "The Curse of the Black Pearl," we're left with an experience that is only marginally better than "At World's End."
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes.
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