May 20, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Watch It At Home; Dreary Franchise Moviemaking.
In the 137 minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides, the 4th installment in Disney’s hugely successful franchise (and yes, you have to sit through all 10 minutes of end credits for a not-crucial coda scene), there is exactly one inspired idea.  About halfway through, we’re introduced to the movie’s version of mermaids, which are more like mer-pires, who drag men underwater, sprout fangs and devour them.  For a few minutes, it’s almost like we’re watching a real adventure story.  But after one action scene, the only mermaid we’re left with is Serena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a depressed creature who pines for love of a dull clergyman (Sam Claflin)–and we remember that actually, this is just a deeply uninteresting corporate product.

The last Pirates entry, 2007’s At World’s End, was an overlong mess, impenetrably plotted and mistaking spectacle for story, but it nevertheless made almost $1 billion worldwide–and that was without 3D ticket premiums.  So it stood to reason that Johnny Depp would reluctantly accept his $35 million paycheck and don his Jack Sparrow garb once again.  This time the Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer team have moved on from director Gore Verbinski (who directed the terrific Rango instead), and replaced him with Rob Marshall.  The result isn’t particularly successful:  Verbinski may have lost control of the last picture, but he brought a buoyantly crazy, almost surreal visual touch to the movies that set them apart from most blockbusters, while Marshall, known previously for musicals like Chicago and Nine, is out of his element and brings no personality at all to the proceedings.  (His action sequences are edited like the musical numbers in Nine, and that’s not a compliment.)
On Stranger Tides also dumps much of the supporting cast from the first trilogy, notably Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, as well as comic relief Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg.  While this makes sense in a way–the Knightley/Bloom storyline was pretty much exhausted–writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who’ve been on the series since the beginning) haven’t replaced them with any worthy substitutes.  Although the Knightley/Bloom characters were criticized, especially when compared to the outrageous fun of Depp, as being the conventional parts of the movies, they provided the tales with their narrative spine and something like a heart.  Turning On Stranger Tides into The Johnny Depp Show, for all Depp’s skill, makes Jack Sparrow’s comic scheming and sneaky heroism feel mechanical. 
The story is more straightforward this time than in the previous couple of movies (although it still could have lost a couple of complications and 20 minutes of screen time).  Everyone is searching for the Fountain of Youth, meaning Jack, his old adversary Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the British and Spanish fleets, the villainous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old love of Jack’s who also happens to be Blackbeard’s daughter.  Naturally use of the Fountain requires not only finding it, but also assembling some mystical elements that include chalices located on Ponce de Leon’s ship and a teardrop of the aforementioned mermaid, which means everyone has to go chasing around the Caribbean one step behind each other.  Cruz brings spirit to her part, and she’s good in her sniping scenes with Depp (the two of them co-starred in Blow 10 years ago), but there’s not much to her character beyond being fiery–Depp had more subversive chemistry with Knightley–while McShane plays yet another bad guy who’s a pale shadow of his classic Al Swearingen in Deadwood.   
On Stranger Tides is less painful to sit through than vaguely dull.  The Disney/Bruckheimer brain trust has toned down the scale of the movie–no giant sea monsters this time, no huge ship battles.  We just get a lot of enormous studio soundstage sets that as filmed by Marshall and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (who’s shot all the other Pirates movies as well as several Tim Burton films) never fully mask their origin.  The transferred 3D provides little more than a few outstretched swords pointing at the audience.  (A 3D note:  if the trailer is to be trusted, Michael Bay, for whatever else one can say about him, may have some much more impressive 3D visuals on hand in the next Transformers.)  Hans Zimmer contributes the bombastic score he gives to action movies when he doesn’t have a director like Christopher Nolan to challenge him, and the music and editing try to convince us we’re watching something much more exciting than we really are.
Even if On Stranger Tides is “disappointing” at the box-office (and Mitch Metcalf’s prediction has its opening weekend running 20% behind At World’s End), it’ll still make hundreds of millions around the world, so as long as Depp wants to keep cashing those paychecks, the franchise will no doubt continue.  Sadly, we in the audience can mark its progress from entertaining surprise to predictable exercise.  
(PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  ON STRANGER TIDES – Disney – PG 13 – 137 minutes – Director:  Rob Marshall – Script:  Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio – Cast:  Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Sam Claflin, Kevin McNally, Astrid Berges-Frisbey – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."