Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is unfortunately the worst film in the popular adventure franchise. While advertised as a paring down and “return to form” for the franchise — a silly notion considering all the films in the original trilogy are good — On Stranger Tides is actually a dull adventure and the franchise’s first misstep. It commits the one cardinal sin that the other films never did: it bores.

The story can only be considered straightforward when compared to the plots of the other films in the series. While in London trying to uncover the identity of his impersonator, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) runs into an old lover, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and is forced into a quest to find the Fountain of Youth by Angelica’s villainous father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now an Admiral in the Imperial Navy, is also after the Fountain, and as the two expeditions compete for the elusive treasure, various high jinks involving mermaids, zombies, and the Spanish ensue.

One of the most common complaints directed at the previous trilogy is the complexity of the plot. While Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End certainly became bloated with various subplots, no matter how convoluted they became, there was always a sense of sprawling adventure. The constant double-crossings and plethora of character motivations made the films unpredictable, something that cannot be said about On Stranger Tides. Every beat this film makes can be predicted before it happens.

As well, the running time seems unearned. While being the shortest film in the series at 137 minutes, On Stranger Tides feels the longest. It acts like a smaller film blown up to fill an epic running time. The other films had the mythology and subplots to fill the extra time and add another dimension to the goings-on, but by cutting the extraneous material, On Stranger Tides is thin and stretched — a straightforward 90-minute story dragged out over far too long a time.

On Stranger Tides also suffers from the weakest characters in the series. Jack Sparrow and Barbossa are still great characters and fun to watch onscreen, but even they are diminished from previous films. Jack Sparrow is designated the role of straight man and it’s an ill fit. Sparrow is a clown and a swindler — he is mean to subvert and mock the main thrust of the story — so when the story uses him as its anchoring point, it drains him of some of his manic charm.

Blackbeard is impotent as a villain despite the character’s potential or the smart casting of Ian McShane. He is meant to be evil incarnate, but I think he kills hardly more than a handful of people all movie. Angelica is more irritating than feisty, and Penelope Cruz seems ill suited to the role. As well, the characters of Philip, the missionary, and Syrena, the mermaid, are clumsy attempts to fill the void left by Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley). Their subplot literally dives to the depths of the ocean and is never resolved.

Perhaps the biggest problem of On Stranger Tides is that it’s not that much fun. There are humorous lines here and thrilling sword fights there, but as a whole, On Stranger Tides seems a limp attempt to replicate the success of the first film. It tries to be straightforward fun with Sparrow at its centre, but the lack of mythology and interesting side characters make it seem to inhabit a world much smaller and less fantastic than the previous films. As well, as much as people try to deny it, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan were necessary to the series. They provided the central arc for the series, conventional romantic elements, and were the straight characters that Sparrow could so brilliantly play off of.

On Stranger Tides hasn’t made me dread another Pirates of the Caribbean film. It only makes me hope that the next film is able to broaden its scope and recapture the fun and adventure that make the series worthwhile.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Directed by Rob Marshall; written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio suggested by On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers; starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, and Geoffrey Rush

5 out of 10