Review by Ryan Wilson
By now Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise has become as
familiar as Disneyland, making Jack Sparrow as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. And
like visiting Disneyland, watching a Pirates film is similar to taking your child to The
Magic Kingdom: the whole affair is loud and tiresome, but it still might make you feel
like a kid again if you succumb to the ride.
And Pirates, lest we forget, is based on an actual ride at Disneyland, making the
films nearly impossible to criticize simply because they are all too easy to criticize.
Attacking the franchise by now is likened to attacking Walmart or professional sports;
you’ll easily win the argument, but the majority will unlikely heed your warning or even
care, and so a righteous critic comes across as just a scold. Like the Star Wars or
Terminator franchises, Pirates of the Caribbean is just too big to fail, no matter how
mediocre it gets.
It didn’t begin this way. Way back in that ancient summer of 2003, Jack Sparrow
felt like a revelation at the Cineplex. Doing his best Keith Richards, Johnny Depp single-handedly turned a crusty pirate stereotype into something fresh, flamboyant, and yes,
acceptably drunk. That some Disney executives found his performance too effeminate
tells you that he was on to something. Depp even earned an Oscar nomination for Best
Actor for the role.
Nine years on, however, and the bit has lasted too long. When Keith Richards
himself appears as Sparrow’s mumbling father, as he has in the last two movies, it begins
to feel less like a wink and more like a point. This sort of overexposure is the price of
success. Even Depp’s once-unique character has become a caricature of itself.
Yet Jack Sparrow still holds our eye on the screen. We like to think he’s
unpredictable, even when his volatility is expected. No, the real problem with the Pirates
franchise has been its overly plotted scripts courtesy of screenwriter Ted Elliott. The
third Pirates movie especially devolved into nonsense, as lead characters kept changing
sides until it became unclear what anyone actually wanted to accomplish. That might be
okay for the rakish Jack Sparrow, who just rolls that way, but when dull supporting
figures like Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley trade their bland romance for bland
action, I lost interest.
The current fourth film On Stranger Tides was a chance to reset the compass and
let the true pirates, led by Sparrow, take center stage. And for a while, they do. Geoffrey
Rush gets to return as the one-legged Captain Barbossa, and he’s a great Laurel to
Sparrow’s Hardy. Rush just looks like what you’d expect a pirate to look and sound like.
We also get the formidable Blackbeard, played with heft by Ian McShane. Blackbeard’s
wielding his supernatural ship is easily the most impressive scene this time around. We
also get an exciting mermaid attack, at once predictable and seductive to watch.
But the fun eventually gets ruined when writer Elliot decides to give his
characters motives. Since when do pirates need motives beyond plundering and fighting
each other? As if missing the chaste romance between Bloom and Knightley, Elliot
includes a subplot involving a chaste romance between a captured mermaid and a
missionary. It’s difficult to care about these two between all of the swashbuckling, and
their slow scenes send the film to a screeching halt.
As does Depp’s new love interest, played by Penelope Cruz. The film takes great
pains to explain the history between her and Sparrow, all the while making Sparrow feel
guilty for how he’s mistreated her in the past. This might be a good message for the
millions of kids who’ll see this movie, but it also boxes our whimsical hero into a corner.
His every action in the last half of the film revolves around redeeming himself, and this
sort of kills the fun of being Jack Sparrow.
Veteran director Rob Marshall has taken over the reigns from Gore Verbinski,
who directed the first three films. Marshal is best known for adapting musical theater to
the screen, most notably 2002’s Chicago. Why he would want to direct a Pirates film is a
mystery. Maybe he thought the swordfights resembled some form of dance. For better or
worse, however, his film looks and feels no different from the first three outings.
As you might expect, the film ends with the hint, if not the promise, of further
adventures. And why not? As long as we don’t get a prequel to all of this nonsense, it’s
not entirely useless. By now we know what we pay for: plenty of synthetic action, a few
smart innuendos, and in the end that hollow feeling like nothing much really mattered,
sort of like being fourteen again and getting dropped off and later picked up at the mall.
It’s best we get the Pirates out of our system before Johnny Depp gets too old and
we begin to get nostalgic for Captain Jack. Else we might have another Indiana Jones
and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull on our hands. Better that our favorite summertime
anti-hero burnout than fade away.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.
© Ryan Wilson, 2011