Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
"People want to see Johnny Depp - not a bunch of crap!" That's a quote from a friend during a recent visit, in which we somehow ended up discussing the often-quirky filmography of Johnny Depp. When the mythology-heavy and completely cumbersome second and third "Pirates" films came up, that was his re-action. And although I don't find the admittedly talented Depp nearly as intriguing as some folks I know, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.

"Pirates of the Caribbean" parts one through three director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp clearly lost their winning spark of the original outing ("Curse of the Black Pearl") with the first two epic sequels, which were shot back-to-back and released within a year of one another. Going in to those sequels, the screenwriters (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) were faced with a major creative choice: They could either painstakingly mine the first film (an intended one-off) for possible threads and elements upon which they could build a sprawling mythic trilogy (which were all the rage at the time - sagas such as "The Matrix", "Lord of the Rings" and the "Star Wars" prequels were all still fresh memories), or they could take the James Bond movie approach, and make each film simply another self-contained adventure of Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Depp, for those of you who've been living under a barnacle). Unfortunately, they opted for the former approach, resulting in an exhaustive exercise in both storytelling and film-going.

Apparently the lesson was learned loud and clear. With the new fourth entry, screenwriters Elliott and Rossio, along with star Depp (and a few other franchise veteran scalawags) return for a leaner and lighter "Pirates". This time, as Jack Sparrow and company set off in search of the legendary Fountain of Youth, the story is the kind of refreshingly explainable tale that harkens back to the first "Pirates" film, an audience favorite and surprise hit in the summer of 2003. "On Stranger Tides", however, doesn't quite reach that film's level of crowd-pleasing sweep. (Although it is in 3-D - an effect that is utilized effectively maybe twice in the two hour running time.)

Replacing Verbinski at the wheel is director Rob Marshall, primarily known for his work helming lavish studio musicals ("Chicago", "Nine"). Although Marshall doesn't always know where to put the camera, his inherent sense of rhythm and movement demonstrated in his musicals carries over nicely to the obligatory airy action choreography of this film. He is not the problem here. Nor is Johnny Depp, whom without a heavy mythology plot to weigh down his effeminate high seas clown act, promptly seizes the screen and never gives it back. No, the problem is the screenplay, dominated in the second half by logic flaws big enough to steer a windjammer through.

You see, in order to make the Fountain of Youth work, merely drinking from it is not enough. One must mix in the elusive tear of a mermaid into the special chalices of real-life Fountain searcher Ponce De Leon. But wait... if Ponce De Leon was the guy who once famously searched for the Fountain, how did he know he had to have the special chalices - the very ones he owned? Hmm, good thing he brought them on his failed quest! I'm sure, if given the chance, Elliott and Rossio could explain their way out of this, but the fact that they don't in the film itself is the real sticking point. Anyhow, the whole thing ends up feeling a lot like a warmed-over reworking of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". (The one with the Holy Grail.)

But that said, the first half of the film is a lot of breezy fun. Yes, most of the twists and turns prove predictable, but I'd say that they're not always predictable in a bad way. Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz (as the villain Blackbeard and his heroic-yet-shady daughter, respectively) fill their parts well enough, but ultimately do nothing to distract attention from the key antics of Depp and Geoffrey Rush, who once again playing the Sparrow-baiting Barbossa - the only supporting character that didn't prove to be dead-weight in the previous sequels. Approaching that level of dead-weight, however, are a love stuck missionary (Sam Claflin) and the doe-eyed, headstrong mermaid he's smitten with (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). (Amusing that the mermaids, while topless but also apparently nipple-less, remain strategically obstructed throughout, for good PG-13 measure.)

I don't think the world has been exactly clamoring for a fourth Jack Sparrow film, and consequently, upon arrival, this film has the vibe of being yet another massive Hollywood sequel that no one asked for. If anything justifies the existence of "On Stranger Tides", it's the fact that all parties involved knew that before this franchise were to be laid to rest, they had to prove to the world that they could indeed make a halfway decent, properly self-contained "Pirates of the Caribbean". And halfway decent it is. Maybe, at times, even a little more than halfway. Anyhow, it's still not bad for a movie that's based on a theme park ride (which, incidentally, has at this point been refashioned into the image of the films.) Beyond that, "Pirates 4" may certainly be completely unnecessary, but at least it's not a total bunch of crap.

- Jim Tudor

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

  • Rob Marshall
  • Ted Elliott (screenplay)
  • Terry Rossio (screenplay)
  • Ted Elliott (screen story)
  • Terry Rossio (screen story)
  • Ted Elliott (characters)
  • Terry Rossio (characters)
  • Stuart Beattie (characters)
  • Jay Wolpert (characters)
  • Tim Powers (novel)
  • Johnny Depp
  • Penélope Cruz
  • Geoffrey Rush
  • Ian McShane
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Rob MarshallTed ElliottTerry RossioStuart BeattieJay WolpertTim PowersJohnny DeppPenélope CruzGeoffrey RushIan McShaneActionAdventureFantasy

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