Monday, May 30, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides / **½ (PG-13)

Captain Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp
Angelica: Penélope Cruz
Captain Barbossa: Geoffrey Rush
Blackbeard: Ian McShane
Gibbs: Kevin R. McNally
Philip: Sam Claflin
Syrena: Astrid Berges-Frisbey
Scrum: Stephen Graham
Captain Teague: Keith Richards

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Suggested by the novel “On Stranger Tides” by Tim Powers. Based on characters created by Elliott & Rossio and Stuart Beatie and Jay Wolpert, and on the Disney World amusement park ride. Running time: 137 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo).

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy took the series through an entire life of evolution. Beginning with “The Curse of the Black Pearl” as depthless fun that mixed good action sequences, lighthearted humor and somehow mild horror into the mix, the series then morphed into an epic special effects extravaganza that offered criticism about the modern financial world of corporate rule in the form of the East India Trading Company in “Dead Man’s Chest”. Finally, it veered into the surreal and overblown of “At World’s End”. Is there any place else for these pirates to go? Not really. And so, the latest episode, titled “On Stranger Tides”, finds the crew into fairly familiar territory.

With the exit of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the series, the hero duties fall squarely on Johnny Depp (“Alice in Wonderland”) as Captain Jack Sparrow. After being brought to London to investigate reports of someone impersonating him, Jack finds the British government is still out for his head. While that’s not so shocking, the fact that Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”) is now under the employ of the mad King George is. Equally shocking is the identity of Sparrow’s imposter, a woman named Angelica (Penélope Cruz, “Nine”), who is naturally a former flame of Jack’s.

The reason for all of this activity is that the British have gotten word that the Spanish have discovered the location of the Fountain of Youth. Sparrow was last seen in search of it, so everyone wants him close. That doesn’t mean they have to be nice to him. Angelica is under the employ of another—the ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, “Deadwood”), who possesses a sword that can control the riggings of ships through its wielder’s thoughts. Angelica captures Jack and this high seas adventure is under way.

Many of the winning elements of the “Pirates” franchise have returned. There are the swaying allegiances. Jack finds himself in the service of Blackbeard, but his first mate, Gibbs (Kevin McNally, “Valkyrie”), is helping Barbossa and the British Navy. This allows for the same types of double crosses and triple crosses that peppered the previous films.

There’s also a touch of the supernatural, perhaps not as well used as it was previously. Not enough is done with Blackbeard and his magical sword. The sword’s biggest contribution to the story is something that we never see, the theft of The Black Pearl from Captain Barbossa. Barbossa retells the tale, but the sword’s magical powers are little seen. It is also said that Blackbeard has the ability to turn people into zombies, a facet of his skills that is never explored beyond the undead brutes he employs.

The other supernatural element is the introduction of mermaids to the “Pirates” mythology. The mermaids turn out to be the most interesting aspect of the new film. These aren’t your typical Disney mermaids that sing and long to be real humans. Oh, they sing all right. They sing, and they attack, and they have sharp teeth, and they drag unsuspecting sailors to the bottom of the sea and drown them. These mermaids are nasty. Blackbeard captures one named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, “The Sea Wall”) with the help of a captured missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin, “The Pillars of the Earth”). These two prove that even monster mermaids can fall in love. It is a Disney movie after all.

The main crutch of the story, though, is Depp’s Sparrow, who makes for an odd hero. The story starts out with Sparrow being typically selfish, but in its closing moments finds him making truly heroic gestures. I think Sparrow works better as a foil for the hero than as the hero himself.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” delivers on the summer blockbuster fun that it promises. It’s a swashbuckling adventure that retains the spirit of the series. Unfortunately, the lack of any true heroic character—aside from the missionary and the mermaid whose roles are not large enough—places too much of the weight of the story on the generally comic character of Sparrow.  Because of this the comic moments aren’t quite as sharp and the genuinely original character of Captain Jack Sparrow is softened. It’s still a grand adventure, but it’s not quite as fresh as it once was.

3D Side Note: This is the only movie I’ve seen in 3D this year, so far. It’s the only one I plan to see in 3D until maybe “The Adventures of Tin Tin” at Christmas. Unlike most live action 3D, “On Stranger Tides” was shot using 3D cameras. Because of this the 3D is clear and crisp throughout every frame of the picture. It is the best looking 3D movie I’ve seen since “Avatar”. Most live action 3D movies were shot in 2D and converted. While the studios are getting better at the conversion process, converted films tend to look murkier than ones shot in 3D. Many theaters are offering both 3D and 2D screenings of the big blockbusters this year. I highly recommend you do your research before shelling out the added price for 3D tickets to make sure you’re only paying the extra for movies that were shot in 3D.

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