Extended Thoughts on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’
Directed by Rob Marshall
Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane
We’ve reached the Pirates of the Caribbean finish line, and I’m exhausted. Watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for the second time in advance of the podcast, I found myself awash in ennui. Much like the three films directed by Gore Verbinski that preceded it, On Stranger Tides is replete with running, jumping, fighting, acts of derring-do, and so on, but there’s never a point where the movie feels particularly lively, fresh, exciting. This series started out so unexpectedly, catching us all off guard, and has since petered out, a blip on the radar.
I actually was struggling somewhat with getting through this movie. Whatever I can say, and have said, about the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland, for example, at least that movie kept my attention. It didn’t have any of my affection, but I was never bored during that film. Angry, yes. Bored, no. And whatever can be criticized about Verbinski’s original trilogy, those films aren’t particularly dull. (I will admit that some aspects of At World’s End flounder a bit, so that it’s something of a chore to sit through all 3 hours of the film.) Maybe it’s because of the script, or because Verbinski was replaced here by well-known action director Rob Marshall, but On Stranger Tides is a flat, passive film to sit through.
Worse yet, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is an immensely forgettable affair. Even now, as I write this just a few days past watching the film and recording the podcast, I barely remember the story. Blackbeard wants the Fountain of Youth, he has a daughter, Jack Sparrow has to stop the Spanish from getting the Fountain of Youth first, and…so on, I suppose. What frustrates me most about the movie now, what stands out, is the weak attempt at recreating the romance angle present in the first three films. We don’t have Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to moon over each other this time, because they both wisely realized that it was time to back off; plus, they probably were cool with not adding a guest house to their mansions, at least not this year. Instead, we get a similarly blandly attractive young man and the mermaid he falls for. Like you do.
Why do we even need to have a romance angle in On Stranger Tides? Considering that Captain Jack Sparrow is now paired and sparring with the comely Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s scheming daughter, why add another connection to the story? This is the bread and butter Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have come to embrace in the series, though. They can’t leave well enough alone and simply give us a straightforward story. Here, we have the kings of England and Spain racing to get the Fountain of Youth through their emissaries, pirates and privateers from both countries. And within the former, we have bad pirates trying to bring down the privateers so they can get to the Fountain of Youth. And within that, we have various relationships we’re meant to care about, even on a surface level. Not every movie needs to be a Russian nesting doll.
That romance is what bugs me most of all, as if the people behind the film presumed, per usual, that audiences would not flock to a new Pirates of the Caribbean without a new version of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland swooning over each other. The majority of people—I’d say all, but then Gabe had his connection to the Will/Elizabeth romance in the first three films—don’t give a whit about the romance. We don’t go to a new Pirates of the Caribbean for the romance, we go for fun. And certainly, On Stranger Tides is a less grim film, less so than Dead Man’s Chest or At World’s End, but too often, it’s not light. It’s rarely fun, outside of a few surface pleasures in the first attack by the carnivorous mermaids that culminates in, because of course, a massive explosion. In this moment, Marshall’s dull direction doesn’t get in the way of flashy effects or action. In every other scene, On Stranger Tides is lifeless and, worse, soulless. Many of the actors have returned, but most of them don’t have the same spark as they did at the beginning of the series.
I can’t care about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, no matter how hard I try. I mentioned on the podcast the notion that this film’s creation and subsequent success is endemic of a greater problem not only at Disney, but in Hollywood overall, that sometimes, people go to the movies simply because there’s nothing else to do. So sometimes, people just see whatever’s new, not because they want to, not because they care about what they’re paying for, just that they can have some respite from the world outside for a couple of hours. And while this isn’t a bad notion–in a week such as this particularly tragic and frustrating one, who among us would not want to escape to a fantasy world?–Hollywood preys on it to nasty ends. I realize that Mike would say differently, but I kind of doubt that many people out there care enough about this particular movie, enough that they remember it as fondly as The Curse of the Black Pearl. Did people see On Stranger Tides? No doubt, though far less in the United States than you might expect considering its billion-dollar worldwide box-office take.
But this is not a memorable movie, nor, I fear, is it intended to be. It exists to sell merchandise, to encourage us to travel once more to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, then buy as many Jack Sparrow doodads that we can get our hands on. What makes this any different from The Curse of the Black Pearl? It’s all in the execution, in the passion from the people behind the camera, not behind the executive’s desk. The Johnny Depp of On Stranger Tides is going through the motions, where the Johnny Depp of The Curse of the Black Pearl is playful and enjoying himself.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks in pop culture for myriad reasons, to the point where I tip my hat to those of you who refuse to embrace even a smidgen of cynicism about the state of the world. Specific to Disney, it’s difficult to not completely agree now that it’s always going to be a harsh business, unfeeling about the emotional impact of what they create and renew. If people love the characters, the attractions, the movies, and more, that’s great. But what matters most is the almighty dollar. Very few people are actively excited for a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, just as there are few people jazzed about the concept of an Alice in Wonderland sequel. From a moneymaking perspective, the choice makes sense. But it’s callous and unfeeling in ways that Disney didn’t feel when we were younger. I would very much like to ignore my cynical side, but movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides make it hard to resist.