Review: ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ finally scuttles the series

05.14.11 7 years ago 66 Comments

Walt Disney Pictures

It is evidently not a popular opinion to have enjoyed the first three “Pirates Of The Caribbean” films, despite their having made over a billion dollars each worldwide.  If you were to listen to Johnny Depp in his recent “Entertainment Weekly” cover story, the films are evidently no good, and the series needed an overhaul moving forward.  Personally, I don’t buy that.  I think the first film is still the one that gets everything right, but the second and third films have many, many things to recommend.  If they commit any one sin above all others, it is that they are overstuffed.  There is simply too much going on.  There’s enough material in there for three or four films, and Gore Verbinski seemed to be determined to please you or to pummel you into submission, whichever came first.

If you did not like the second and third film, might I suggest that you skip the new film entirely, and even if you did like the sequels, I’m going to warn you that this latest edition in the franchise, “PIrates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” is a near-total creative disaster.  Since Rob Marshall is directing this time instead of Verbinski, I think it’s pretty clear who was keeping the series afloat, and Verbinski’s work has never looked better than it does by the end of this new film, which is marred by a leaden pace, a complete inability to stage an action scene, and a wildly misconceived move of Captain Jack Sparrow from drunken clown commenting on the action to the main engine of the movie.

It’s almost hard to know where to start in laying out the problems I have with the film, and I feel bad.  Disney event movies have been leaving me cold for a while now, no matter how much I want them to work, and I’m starting to see some common problems from film to film, particularly on the script level.  Both “Alice In Wonderland” and “TRON: Backstory” are marred by having giant chunks of the films consist of characters standing around telling us about more interesting things that happened between movies.  I didn’t think that would be a problem with the fourth film in the series, but in their desire to sever themselves from the original trilogy, they’ve had to refigure almost every key relationship and character in the film, meaning once again, we are treated to an endless buffet of exposition about things we probably should have seen if we’re going to invest in any of this nonsense dramatically.  At some point, someone at Disney needs to wake up and realize it is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS more interesting to actually see the drama instead of just watching people stand around in expensive costumes on expensive sets telling us about it.

I also feel bad about picking on Johnny Depp, but the hundreds of millions he’s earned on this series so far will probably be enough to dry his bitter tears.  I was a Depp fan back when he was still known as box-office poison, and I remember watching the choices he would make in those days, delighted by just how hard he seemed to shirk the burden of being a movie star.  Movies like “Dead Man” may not have made any money, but they made me value just how eccentric Depp could be, and just how powerfully his oddball decisions could pay off.  These days, it seems like he’s settled into a fairly limited bag of tics and tricks, and there’s no surprise at all to the work he’s doing.  He has entered the self-parody phase of his career, and the only performance of his in the last few years where he’s felt totally free again was in “Rango,” where he didn’t even physically appear onscreen.  The “Pirates” movies will one day serve as his multi-million dollar mausoleums, gorgeous gilded coffins holding the remains of his once-glorious career.  Playing Jack Sparrow is the best thing that ever happened to him financially, but the worst thing creatively, and in this film, more than in any of the others, you can feel the calculation behind every choice.  This is a phony piece of work, and Sparrow simply doesn’t work as the actual hero of the film.  He has to play things far more straight than he did in the first few films, so the little bursts of “Hey, I’m wacky!” that erupt seem more out of character than they did in the initial trilogy.  He’s loud instead of inventive, frantic instead of funny, and more than anything, he looks like he wishes he and Keith Richards could just leave the set and find a party instead of playing pirate.

The storyline picks up the thread suggested at the end of the third film, with various parties all searching for the Fountain of Youth, but this has got to be the single laziest script ever written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.  I’m not even sure why they bothered buying the Tim Powers novel “On Stranger Tides,” because the insane mechanical refiguring they had to do to make it work as part of this series renders every good quality in that book moot.  It takes so much legwork just to get all the various factions in the film in motion and on their way to the Fountain that by the time they’re all actually sailing, I was already done with the thing.  In particular, I thought every single moment of the storyline involving Angelica (Penelope Cruz), the mysterious woman from Sparrow’s past, was unmitigated bullshit.  Awful, embarrassing romantic banter, a backstory lifted from “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” and no chemistry whatsoever mean that you just sit through their scenes, waiting for anything to work.  Any joke, any gag, any physical stunt.  But nope… it all just lays there, uninvolving and none of it really moving the story forward.  It’s like they laid out what a film like this should be, and they identified all the basic building blocks, but they never actually got around to making any of it work.  This is an outline of a blockbuster, but without the actual blockbuster attached.  They’ve rebuilt Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) as a character so completely that I don’t know why they even bothered casting him, but they had to in order to create this stupid revenge subplot involving him and Blackbeard (Ian McShane), since Blackbeard’s been shoehorned into this one and they needed some excuse to involve him.  They also built in a new pair of young lovers (played earnestly by Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to replace Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom, and they are bland and boring and add nothing of note to the movie.

It’s amazing that you can make a film with zombie pirates and killer mermaids boring, but that is not the film’s greatest sin.  No, that has to be the fact that they shot the film in native 3D in Hawaii, and they somehow manage to make it look like a backlot in a TV movie.  How do  you shoot Hawaii and make it boring?  How do you shoot it in 3D and make it visually uninvolving?  Oh, I know… you hire Rob Marshall to direct.

Yes, it’s time to put Rob Marshall to bed, folks.  Let’s acknowledge one of the dirty little secrets of Hollywood right up front:  if you liked “Chicago,” you can thank Bill Condon for that.  Marshall may have been the director, but Condon was the one who figured out how to take a difficult-to-translate show and structure and shoot it as a movie.  Marshall was hired for his background as a dance choreographer, and there is nothing in the three films he’s made since “Chicago” that would suggest to me that he has any skills as a filmmaker beyond his work with dancers.  There’s a chase sequence through London in the first third of this film that is totally unmotivated on a story level and that exists simply to waste 20 minutes or so, and it looks like they shot a rehearsal where Marshall told the stunt crew to run through it all at 1/3 speed, deciding to shoot it that way without realizing how bad it would look on film.  No surprise, though.  He has no feel for action, no flair for comedy, and barely seems able to figure out how to stage basic dialogue.  He is inept, top to bottom, and this film reveals every flaw he has as a filmmaker with laser clarity.

So when you read Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer talking about how this new film returns the series to its roots and how much heart there is this time and how it’s a better story than the sequels so far, ignore them.  Ignore their craven attempt to milk more money out of the fondness audiences have for Depp’s character, and tune out their promises that this is the beginning of a new trilogy of films.  This is a naked cash grab, as ugly and hollow and callous as big-budget filmmaking gets.  This was genuinely difficult to sit through, and despite knowing that Disney is planning to crank out two more of these, I have to hope against hope that audiences will wise up and reject this one when they get a sniff of just how rancid it is.

Then again, “Alice In Wonderland” made a billion dollars, so maybe there’s no limit to the punishment people will subject themselves to just to watch Depp mince around in silly costumes.

You get what you pay for, people.  Spend wisely.  Steer clear.

“Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is unleashed on the public in theaters everywhere May 20, 2011.

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