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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides



In his fourth cinematic adventure, Captain Jack Sparrow sets sail for the Fountain of Youth, but nearly everything in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides feels old and tired. The prevailing feeling of On Stranger Tides is "here we go again". Swash your buckles and avast ye landlubbers, a pirate's life never ends.

As Jack Sparrow ("There should be a 'Captain' in there somewhere."), Johnny Depp has long since had his pirate schtick down pat. In On Stranger Tides, Jack swash-bungles his way through yet another absurd escapade filled to the brim with Saturday morning cartoon derring-do, the macabre and the bizarre. As ever, Captain Jack Sparrow is an impossible-to-kill buffoon-savant; a mad genius at improvisation, a live action Bugs Bunny in mascara and frills. Anyone in the movie or in the audience who is still surprised by Jack's antics simply did not see any of the three prior Pirates of the Caribbean movies. 

In On Stranger Tides, Jack, his perpetual frienemy, a newly peglegged Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and loyal first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) are the only veterans keelhauled from the original trilogy. The new characters include Penelope Cruz as Angelica, the daughter of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane). They want the Fountain of Youth to save Blackbeard's soul from all the evil he's done, ever mind all the evil Blackbeard is currently doing and Angelica is helping him do to find the Fountain of Youth. Let's not think about such things, love.

From an entertaining starting point in "Londontown", England, complete with Jack having a face to face with King George IV, a quick pint with his dad (Keith Richards), and a brief (she thought) makeout session with Dame Judi Dench, the pirates set sail to... where did they go? Were they still on Earth? To find the Fountain of Youth, they first needed to acquire a mermaid from a place called White Cap Bay, then travel across what looked like the Island from Lost, to a place called San Miguel. Honestly, where in the world did the second half of the movie take place? And how come when they found the Fountain of Youth, it looked suspiciously like The Guardian of Forever from classic Star Trek?

"I am the Guardian of Forever. Or am I the Fountain of Youth?"

The most memorable sequence of On Stranger Tides involves the mermaids, enchanting creatures who fight like velociraptors of the sea and can bring a pirate ship down en masse. Cast as mermaids are the most gorgeous women the production could find, with Gemma Massey as the first mermaid we encounter, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the mermaid the pirates capture. A mermaid's tears are part of a simplistic ritual involving two silver chalices and water from the Fountain, drinking from which gives... what, exactly? Is it eternal life or just the years from the person who didn't drink from the chalice with the mermaid's tears? Ponce De Leon is dead, so it must be the latter, right? What a gyp.

Perhaps upon realizing the Fountain of Youth did not actually offer immortality, Jack reversed his previous goal of attaining immortality for himself. When Elizabeth Swann sacrificed Jack to the Kraken at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and he had to escape Davy Jones' Locker in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, his own mortality was foremost on Jack's mind. Achieving immortality is why he set sail for the Fountain of Youth to begin with. Instead, he chooses to turn "immortality" over to Penelope Cruz, whom we are asked to believe is Jack's one true love, but we don't. Neither does Jack, who ditches her at the end without regret.

Cruz has the unenviable task of following Keira Knightley as the main girl in a Pirates movie; she's game for the action but her character would have best been marooned on a desert isle much sooner. As Blackbeard, McShane suffers from the same limitations. Blackbeard is possessed of fearsome supernatural powers -- these seem limited to animating the ropes on a pirate ship. Blackbeard also can turn people into zombies but the zombies can talk and don't act like zombies at all, they're just uglier than the ugly pirates. Blackbeard is neither menacing nor ultimately very interesting; he even lacked the pathos Bill Nighy brought to Davy Jones, pining for his true love Calypso. There's also a Christian Missionary who falls for the mermaid Blackbeard captures, in a profoundly uninteresting romance subplot that ends the same way Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah's does in Splash.

Compared to the previous Pirates, with the undead skeleton crewmen of the Black Pearl, the monstrous Kraken (sorely missed - God, do I miss the Kraken!), the motley menagerie of Pirate Lords, and the macabre sea goddess Calypso, On Stranger Tides is a more modest (read: dull) affair. Imagination seems to be sorely lacking, with the final confrontation at the Fountain of Youth taking place in a cave not unlike the final battle in Curse of the Black Pearl. Speaking of the Black Pearl, Jack's beloved pirate ship remains shrunken in a bottle by Blackbeard (oh yes, he had the magical power to shrink pirate ships into bottles), giving Jack license to embark on a fifth Pirates movie. That shivers me timbers.