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