Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are amazing men. Their screenplays can confuse audiences just as easily as they can entertain. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth film in the hugely successfully Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer franchise and the first to be released in 3D, is exuberant fun – and damn near impossible to keep track of. Some of the blame rests on the character of Captain Jack Sparrow, a man known for his lies, trickery, and instinct for self promotion; it has now come to the point that I can no longer distinguish between truth and deception, which is to say it has become exhausting trying to figure him out. But God help me, he’s still one of the best pirate characters ever created, in large part because of the actor who plays him, Johnny Depp. After eight years and four films, Jack remains as magnetic as he ever was. Believe you me, that’s no small task.
The rest of the blame lies with Jack’s old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a new character replacing both Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, their story having ended with the previous film. With her, there’s absolutely no knowing where reality ends and the façade begins. Her entire existence depends on spinning a web of lies, all in an attempt to beat Jack at his own game. When she’s introduced, she’s disguised as Jack, and she takes great pleasure in engaging him in a beautifully choreographed sword fight; as the film progresses, they engage in conversational ping pong matches, some clever and well-mannered, others desperate attempts at one-upsmanship. She complicates matters further by revealing things about herself that may or may not be true.
In the film, Jack and Angelica find themselves at sea with the notorious pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who must find and drink from the fabled Fountain of Youth to counteract his own prophesied death. Angelica, for reasons known only to her, is determined to make sure Blackbeard succeeds, for it will mean saving his soul. In hot pursuit is Jack’s former nemesis, Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who, after having lost his leg and the famous Black Pearl, seems to have traded in a life of piracy for a career with the British navy. As he sets sail, he notices a small fleet of Spanish ships … and wouldn’t you know it, they too are in search of the Fountain of Youth. Its restorative powers take effect under a confusing set of rules, including having to draw forth man-eating mermaids, capture one, and extract from her a single tear. This factors into an unnecessary and unresolved subplot involving a Christian missionary (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid named Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who he has fallen in love with.
As needlessly convoluted as the plot is, the film is still terrific entertainment, largely because of the amazing set designs, the dazzling special effects, the gravity-defying action, and the humorous characters. Taking the directorial reins from Gore Verbinski – whose commitments to Rango prevented him from participating – is Rob Marshall, the Broadway choreographer known primarily for his film adaptations of musical plays (the Oscar-winning Chicago and the tragically underrated Nine). You’d think this would make him an odd choice for this kind of film. After all, how do you transition from staged song-and-dance spectacles to an action/adventure/supernatural period film? It’s surprisingly seamless. Action, like dancing, is choreographed, and choreography requires an understanding of movement – an understanding Marshall clearly has.
The Pirates films have always had interesting villains, probably because most of them are directly involved with the supernatural. On Stranger Tides is no exception. Blackbeard, in all physical respects a human being, is in possession of a magical sword; with the slightest touch of the hilt, he can make the cordage of his ship slither like snakes, tie sailors up, and suspend them from the rigging. He can also shoot gigantic fireballs from the bow section; how they’re generated is left to the imagination. He even has access to a voodoo doll that bears a striking resemblance to Jack.
The film features much of your usual pirate fare, including exotic jungle locations, drunken sailors, mutiny plots, treasure hunts, and dank caves littered with bones. No cannonball fights at sea, though. Then again, it would be pretty hard to beat the original film’s battle sequence, in which not just cannonballs but also candelabras and forks were fired at the Black Pearl. Visually, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has all the right ingredients (most of them are not enhanced by the 3D process, but that comes as no surprise to me). What’s missing is a plot that doesn’t require note-taking. Blink your eyes, turn your head for just one second, and you’re likely to miss something important. I also would have appreciated more honest and reliable lead characters. When you’re unsure about who they are and what they stand for even after two and a half hours, something isn’t quite right.
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Walt Disney Pictures