When financial necessity transformed Disney’s breezy “Pirates of the Caribbean” into a ponderous, waterlogged trilogy, the franchise reached such a saturation point that even star Johnny Depp admitted he often had no clue what was going on in his own scenes. For that, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” serves as a welcome corrective, reviving the fun, feather-light frivolity that any film based on a Disneyland ride ought to exhibit. It has nary an original idea and still doesn’t make much sense, but it’s lost all pretensions that it should, and looks poised to plunder massive worldwide coin.
Making a conscious break from Gore Verbinski’s trilogy — and dropping two key protagonists without explanation — new director Rob Marshall discards much of the convoluted mythology of the later pics, and instead adapts an unrelated novel (Tim Powers’ “On Stranger Tides”) to fit the characters.
That’s hardly the only looting going on, however. This film contains heavy lifting from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” a moony supernatural romance cribbed straight from Stephenie Meyer, and even a Lone Ranger and Tonto-style walk into the sunset. Some of this falls flat, but Marshall gets away with it on the sheer earnestness of his appropriations — had he attempted to disguise them, it would have felt dishonest; had he winked at them, the film would have disintegrated into a smirking exercise. As it is, it almost brings to mind Umberto Eco’s famous description of “Casablanca” as a hundred different cliches celebrating a reunion.
Following an appropriately pulpy prologue, the film opens on erstwhile Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) as he’s marooned in London in search of a ship, and pursued by local authorities who he makes little serious effort to avoid. Hearing that an impostor Sparrow is auditioning pirate recruits at a seaside bar, he seeks out the interloper only to discover his spitfire former lover Angelica (Penelope Cruz), disguised as him.
After some requisite sword-clashing, Angelica kidnaps Sparrow and ferries him aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, lorded over by Angelica’s (maybe) father, Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Commanding a crew comprised of equal parts stray pirates and hulking zombies — why he needs the former when he has the latter is never explained — Blackbeard enlists Sparrow to help him locate the fountain of youth, which becomes an especially urgent task after a prophecy foretells Blackbeard’s imminent death at the hands of a one-legged man.
Meanwhile, Sparrow’s rival Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now conveniently one-legged, has bid farewell to his pirate’s life, and seeks the fountain on behalf of the king of England, who is keen to find it before a rival crew sent by the king of Spain can claim it for themselves. As the three parties converge on the fountain’s jungle location, they must also deal with a ravenous horde of vampiric mermaids, from whom a single tear must be procured to drink the fountain’s waters.
(Somewhat disturbingly, these sirens are the perpetrators, and victims, of the only borderline-upsetting violence in the film.)
In case auds have trouble following any of the above, frequent recaps are provided throughout, and it ultimately doesn’t matter too much anyway. More problematic is the film’s near-total lack of suspense. Now that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s land-lubber audience surrogates have been cast off, the viewer is left entirely in the company of unflappable pirates, who rarely seem overly concerned with how they will wiggle out of any particular jam. All the better to enjoy the impressive choreography of the action setpieces, maybe, but it robs the pic of any real tension.
Depp remains the face of the film, and has lost little enthusiasm for his mincing derring-do. But a majority of his thunder is co-opted by an on-point Rush, who not only gets the funniest lines and reaction shots, but also starts to siphon away much of the roguish charm that used to be Depp’s stock and trade. McShane, on the other hand, is underwhelming. Never appearing comfortable in his heavy pirate get-up, his tired Blackbeard is only menacing via other characters’ testimonials to his evil, and his one onscreen atrocity seems tossed in merely to stress that he is, in fact, the bad guy.
Cruz is a reliably welcome, gorgeous presence, though she too often falls back on the “feisty Latina” signifiers that have been the crutch of so much of her English-language work. Sam Claflin supplies some semi-risible gallantry as a super-studly priest, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey looks effectively terrified as a captive mermaid.
Aside from some groan-worthy swords and serpents protruding from the screen, 3D lensing is smart and clear, and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score is never inappropriate to the goings-on onscreen. Production design and visual effects all look very expensive.