May 23 2011 4:11pm

The Compass Will Point You to Freedom—Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger TidesWhen the first Pirates of the Caribbean film came out, Johnny Depp gave an interview where he admitted that he loved playing Jack Sparrow so much that he would continue to don the dreadlocks and eyeliner as long as they kept creating scripts that he liked. That may have caused a few groans, but it was still an interesting prospect: what if these films became a serial? Could Depp carry that many films across however many decades they chose to run with him?

As if you even had to ask, mate—he’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Savvy?

While the initial Pirates trilogy was wildly successful in the monetary sense, there were still plenty of nay-sayers who were not pleased with the plotlines of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. It’s understandable; if you were enjoying the all-out romp of the first film, the dark twists and frenzied plotting by every single character in the following two movies might have worn you down. Whether or not you fall into this category, the benefit of On Stranger Tides is that it’s never bogged down by the backstory of those first three films. Forget Will and Elizabeth—they’ve moved on with their lives. Tia Dalma had her day. Norrington and Governor Swann are gone. We’re here for Jack… and Barbossa. (Don’t lie, you’ve always been in it for Barbossa.)

The opening sequence offers exactly what we should get from these movies: a highly improbable escape followed by an even more improbable chase scene and two brilliant cameos (one that you probably were not expecting, which makes it that much sweeter). Everyone is masterfully over the top, and clearly very comfortable there, from Richard Griffiths foppish turn as King George to Óscar Jaenada’s comically straight-laced, tight-lipped Spaniard. And in the middle of it all, Jack is doing what he does best—making himself look like a complete fool despite the fact that some semblence of a plan must be bubbling away on the next tier of his brain.

Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Getting a closer look at Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa provides us with one of the most interesting turns in the series to date. His good humor, his bizarre sense of honor and his innate ability to be the best commander of any ship he sets foot on (oh, I could make such a mean joke there, but it would be a spoiler) is enough to make this movie worth watching. Spending half of his time on screen interacting with Jack delivers both of their performances on a level that makes you wonder why someone doesn’t up and create the buddy-pirate genre to replace buddy-cops.

This is all without getting to the mermaids.

The Pirates movies are in a unique place to draw from every legend and piece of folklore linked to pirate mythos without calling into question whether or not these things should co-exist. They have created a universe much like the one Indiana Jones occupies, drawn from those pre-film serialized shorts back in the 1930s and 40s, a universe where everything belongs. Magic, religion, history, mythology, and more voodoo and machinations of fate than you can shake a feathered rainstick at. As a result, the mermaids of the Pirates universe feel much more like those from Barrie’s Neverland than your typical Disney fair, and their powers are closely linked the ones you find in siren tales. In the end, they are ethereal, frightening, and a lot of fun.

Stranger Tides is by no means a flawless effort; there is definitely more than one scene where it seems as though the screenwriters forgot the rule about two characters just sitting and talking exposition for three solid minutes (but the actors remember it, which make those scenes even more awkward to watch). Ian McShane is not particularly memorable as Blackbeard, and through no fault of his own; he simply isn’t given that much to work with dialogue-wise. Penelope Cruz’s character had the ability to be the real lady pirate that many fans were searching for in Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, with all selfishness and hunger for glory that entails; instead, she becomes your standard lost little girl with male abandonment issues. Perhaps they should have just stuck to what they do best, because they do it so very well.

But in the end, it all comes down to Jack and his (mostly) faithful first mate Gibbs. While Jack spends most of this film without his famous leather tricorn hat—three guesses as to what that signifies within the narrative—the next film promises a return of sorts for our favorite captain. Let’s hope he gets a worthy one. Instead of making these films out to be more than they are and getting disappointed by the lack of “newness” they possess, I suggest we start thinking of Captain Jack as a whimsical staple in our lives—one who will continue to entertain us for years to come.

Emily Asher-Perrin is keeping Jack’s hat until he needs it. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Lindsay Ribar
1. Lindsay Ribar
I love this review, and love even more that someone out there (a) enjoyed the movie as much as I did, and (b) is not morally offended by the idea of infinite Captain Jack movies.

I admit, I was scared that the franchise would drain Jack of everything that made him appealing in the first place -- mostly because the second and third movies came terrifyingly close to doing exactly that -- but for me, movie 4 functioned as a reboot as much as a sequel. Strip away the boring bits, turn Jack from a caricature back into a character, and you've got a fresh-feeling movie.

Also, buddy-pirate genre. This. Yes. THIS FOREVER.
Lindsay Ribar
2. Megaduck
You know, I have to disagree. I found this movie a boring and mishappen mess from begining to ending.

First problem, the characters were flat and lifeless. It's like they
read the script and just followed it rather then doing what made sense.
A random prophecy to get the villain in motion? Why was Angelica bothportrayed as a skilled liar and con-woman... and yet told the truth the entire time? What the hell was jack trying to do... ever? Did the
priest have a point in the story?

Second problem. The action was boring and uninspired. Go back and
watch the climatic fight between Barbarossa and Blackbeard. Notice
something? They're just banging their swords together. It's like all
the choreography was used up in the first 20 minutes and then they hadnothing to fall back on.

Third problem, the humor is lifeless. People make jokes because a
Pirates movie has to have them but they feel tacked on. There is
absolutely not chemistry here for anyone.

That said, there were some good parts. When the mermaid was on the boat singing it was creepy as hell. The Spanish were cool. The entire
thing with the chandelier was a nifty little stunt as well.

Though I am glad someone felt they got thier money's worth after seeing this movie.
Lindsay Ribar
3. Nonie
Fantastic review! I've been surprised by the number of critics who've expressed this hatred for this movie even before it came out. I loved the movie and am glad they decided to make it.
Lindsay Ribar
4. RanchoUnicorno
This is a different review from what I had seen earlier (from my most trusted source). But, it does give me pause as far as the thought of watching it once it makes the Netflix rounds - I don't care for Depp's Sparrow, but I love watching Rush's Barbossa.
Dave Thompson
5. DKT
Wow. Thanks for this - I had pretty much written this movie off due to the bad buzz I'd heard surrounding it. It's nice to hear from someone who actually enjoyed it. Now, I might change my mind again and check it out in the theater.
Filip Belic
6. fbelic
Does the movie relates to Tim Powers' "On Stranger Tides", and how? I liked the first three movies, but I didn't want to watch this one because I hate when Hollywood spoils some book I like with bad adaptation.
Lindsay Ribar
7. Leah Hansen
Great review, thank you! I've been looking forward to this movie like an over-excited five-year-old for ages. (I think I love pirates and ridiculous adventures way too much.) I was starting to feel discouraged by all the negativity about it floating around on the web, so it's great to read a positive opinion from a reputable source, for once. I'm going to see it tomorrow night. Weeee!

(And I have a terrible weakness for Barbossa. Buddy-pirates ftw! LOL. Barbossa is one of the things I've been looking forward to most of all about this movie.)
Lindsay Ribar
8. iucounu
@fbelic: Bizarrely enough, the film is indeed based on Powers' book - he sold the film rights to Disney some time ago.
David Levinson
9. DemetriosX
@6, 8: Although the credits say "Suggested by the novel", it's more like "once read the blurb on the back cover". The only real common ground with Powers' wonderful, wonderful book is Blackbeard and the Fountain, and neither is anything like in the book. But, hey, it made Tim Powers a bunch of money and maybe it will get more people to read his work.

That said, I enjoyed the film. It isn't as good as the first one, but then nothing will ever come close to that, if for no other reason than that Jack doesn't real hold any more surprises for us. There was one thing that does require some familiarity with the original trilogy to understand: Jack's compass. I did miss Pintel and Ragetti (though Scrum was a fair replacement), but there is certainly room for them to come back in the next film. They could simply be where the monkey (whom we do see) is.

Anyway, it worked for me. I'll be buying the DVD and seeing the next one once it's made.
Lindsay Ribar
10. parabola
I am unabashedly a huge fan of all things PoTC. I love the heck out of all three of the first movies, and my fave of the 3 is At World's End.
Haven't seen this one yet, and slightly concerned that it's no longer Verbinski, but I will watch it and, let's be honest, likely enjoy it.
Emily Asher-Perrin
11. EmilyAP
@Lindsay Ribar - I'm glad I'm not the only person who liked it too! And also that you're cool with a dozen Jack movies. Because, really, Johnny Depp should be playing this part when he's 70. It'll just get more and more fabulous. (In my secret dream place, he and Barbossa get their own movie series where they can snipe and drink rum and nearly betray each other every half hour before teaming up to do something amazing. It is a glorious area of my brain.)

@Megaduck - I'm sorry it disappointed you, and I completely understand your issues with Angelica. I would say that the fight between Blackbeard and Barbossa was kind of limited by Barbossa's peg leg. I have a hard time imagining how they were going to make the choreography all that brilliant with that in mind, unless they made Geoffrey Rush CGI (which I'm just as glad that they didn't). It's entirely possible that they could have done something to make it more lively, though-I'm no expert in film combat staging.

@fbelic - As a few others were kind enough to chime in, it is indeed based on the Tim Powers book. Kind of. Very slightly. I wouldn't worry about unless you're incredibly sensitive to the idea of them using any plot elements from the book (which is really all they used).

@DemetriosX - I missed Pintel and Ragetti too. It would be great if they managed to bring them back somehow. And you're right about the compass, I hadn't thought of that. I wonder if the people who weren't familiar with it noticed, or if their brains just sort of skipped over it.

@Everyone - It's so nice to hear that others are enjoying the film, and that some of you might see it now that you've seen a more positive review. I hope you do! It's really just a lot of fun, and there's no reason to say no to fun. :)
Lindsay Ribar
12. mirana
Loved the film. I'd say it has the same feeling as #2. New adventure, but the characters are comfortable with each other and there's a lot of on-land scenes.
Matthew Brown
13. morven
I saw the press screener at the El Capitan in Hollywood a few weeks before release. It's a good movie; not a great one, but I enjoyed myself mightily and in some places it's excellent.

Depp was in the audience, too -- among the fans, not the press people. Amusingly, he was sitting with a Jack Sparrow impersonator and someone else dressed as a pirate. Not many people seemed to realize who he was.
Lindsay Ribar
14. sdelmonte
I have a number of qualms with PotC4, mainly that to some degree the characters' goals are rather diffuse; that it was too long; and that Jack and Barbossa don't get enough screen time. But it was fun, and I can't say I won't be there for the next one. It's like being late in the run of a beloved TV. It isn't what it was, but you know you can't live without the characters.

I do hope, however, that they don't rush the fifth to the screen and that they give Jack something larger to do.

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