Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
History: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl premiered in 2003, based, absurdly enough, on a ride down at Disney World, but the idea was sound despite the perception that the conceit of a pirate movie (like westerns once upon a time) was thought dead and gone. Brilliant writing, better acting, and great cinematography was all it took to put pirates back on the silver screen and back into popularity.
Pirates was cast very well with Johnny Depp as the perpetually drunk and crazy Captain Jack Sparrow, Geoffrey Rush as the villainous and classic pirate Captain Hector Barbossa, Orlando Bloom as the naive, pirate hating Will Turner, and 17 year old Keira Knightly as pirate loving, society restrained Elizabeth Swann. Rounding out the cast, Jonathan Pryce as Governor Swann, Jack Davenport as Commodore Norrington, and Kevin McNally as Joshamee Gibbs all were perfectly cast for their characters. Pirates was full of colorful, well rounded, and excellently performed characters.
The story was straightforward and filled with extremely humorous dialogue and plenty of rousing, swashbuckling action. The film also knew when to be silly and when to be serious, and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa was often at the heart of the most emotionally heavy scenes. He revealed the full extent of the curse of the Aztec gold to Elizabeth in dialogue and gripping story before the effects revealed his skeleton form. He brought the sword fighting to a stand still when Jack’s last pistol shot echoed through the Isla de Muerta cave and he realized he could feel, but only until death took him.
Pirates was such a risky venture at the time that they did not plan on sequels, and thus when it exploded at the box office and the studios revealed that they could make more films that would be profitable, everything made for the first film had to be recreated for the sequels, down to ships and Captain Jack’s wardrobe, none of which had been saved.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, the second and third films in the franchise, formed a single storyline and were filmed concurrently. It was an epic four hour adventure on the high seas that advanced the character arcs of all of the major characters and quite a few of the minor ones. The film introduced the character of Davy Jones, played by Bill Nighy, as well as brought to the story Will’s father (only mentioned in the first film) Bootstrap Bill, played by Stellan Skarsgård.
The humor of the first film remained, as did the fun and adventure, but it took a back seat to heavy, epic story lines and character development. The scope of the films expanded to Lord of the Ringsesque territory, as did the action and CGI sequences, though the effects didn’t ever completely overwhelm the storytelling. Despite that, many people didn’t like the “complexity” of the plot twists. Personally, I absolutely love the films, and think that the plots are still actually fairly simple and easy to follow, though why who is doing what sometimes gets a big tangled, but Gore Verbinski, director of the first three films, did a magnificent job of keeping track of and paying off almost every single plot point.
Also of note, Hans Zimmer created perhaps one of the most iconic film scores of all time as he overproduced Klaus Badelt’s score of Black Pearl and completely took over the musical parts of Chest and End. His music is fun to listen to completely outside of the movies, the scores being every bit as fun and epic as the films they were written for.
Hype: As a huge fan of the Pirates films, I was excited for a fourth movie, but given the way that At World’s End sort of brought the sea-faring house down, I wasn’t entirely sure how a fourth film could find an authentic way to continue.
The third film left off with Captain Jack half-heartedly pursuing his beloved ship and also contemplating a quest for the mythical Fountain of Youth, so it was pretty obvious what the story would be, and also given the completed story arcs for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (also given the actors themselves bowing out of the franchise) it was clear that any further movies would be mostly about Jack and probably Barbossa.
Once more of the story was revealed, mainly through trailers, and the new character of Black Beard the Pirate was announced, along with mermaids and a privateer version of Barbossa, I was definitely intrigued and excited. Most of all, going in, I was curious as to the tone (as it was still unclear) and I also wanted answers as to why Barbossa seemed to have unilaterally given up the pirate life in exchange for formal employment by the King of England. I also wanted good treatment given to the Fountain and the mermaids.
The Good: Once again, the casting was spot on. In addition to the returning cast, Ian McShane was cast as Black Beard and there could be few other more perfect actors to play the notorious, and for once, completely historical pirate. Black Beard could have been over the top, or completely lame, but he was chilling, mysterious, and evil, and all of that is due to the great acting of McShane. Penelope Cruz was cast as Angelica, a former lover of Captain Jack, and she brought the character to life and played her well, despite being very pregnant during most of the shoot.
Once more, the effects were great, but not overwhelming, and Hans Zimmer continued his strong tradition of great scoring. The locations were picturesque and the story was simple and easy to follow.
I won’t spoil the plot points of Barbossa’s decisions, but suffice to say that the man has been and always will be the classic pirate in every way. His story arc was perhaps one of the best parts of the plot. As promised, more of Captain Jack’s sordid past was revealed and explored, and his character development, begun in Dead Man’s Chest is continued in this film in different, but still progressive ways, as compared to At World’s End.
The Fountain, and its rituals, were written well: it was everything that an Indiana Jones quest is all about, and just as legendary. The mermaids were handled very well, and actually contributed to the film in several significant ways, and weren’t just eye candy. Also, suffice to say, don’t ever make mermaids angry. Ever. “All I hear is the nesting of seagulls.”
The Ugly: For me, On Stranger Tides lacked something and it took me a while before I was able to put my finger on exactly what was missing, but I eventually realized that this film was not fun. It was enjoyable, satisfying, and well done, but it was not fun. I had watched each of the three films in the days leading up to my excursion to the theater, and I had honestly forgotten how hilarious Curse of the Black Pearl was, and even the other two, while epic and heavy, never forgot the mad-cap fun that was Pirates. While Tides tried a time or two, the only moment in which it came close was when Jack [did something daring at the beginning of the film which is slightly spoilerish]. There was no clever and humorous back and forth dialogue that was the heart, and bread and butter, of the first three films, and there was hardly any levity at all. For a film franchise built on a theme park ride and birthed in fun and humor, this fourth film was quite a departure.
The Personal: I love pirates and the sea, and one of the best parts of the entire seafaring saga for me was the attention to detail that the creators paid to their art. Very many allusions and references are made to classic pirate lore, literature, and legend, and in the fourth film that continued. Black Beard was shown to be a practicer of Voodoo, and though this is not historical, it was accurate in how it was portrayed and how it functioned, even down to the original idea of a zombie. Everything else about Black Beard was fairly spot on to the historical accounts of him. Even the mermaids were closer to their original origins in the different myths about them and classic stories (being man eating, vicious and tricksy creatures) than to modern ideas. For me, all this depth and detail is part of the immense attraction of the pirate films, and On Stranger Tides certainly delivered.
Final Score: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 really angry mermaids