Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
By Matthew Huntley
May 31, 2011

He's on a quest. A quest for rum.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) holds a special place in many people's hearts. At the time of its release, it was fresh, funny and unexpected. There hadn’t been anything like it in a long time, not after movies like Water World and Cutthroat Island turned people off of the Hollywood sea adventure. Pirates was an exception and audiences couldn’t get enough, which explains the enormously successful sequels, though these weren’t nearly as beloved as the original.

Maybe On Stranger Tides will fare better, because this fourth installment brings the franchise back to a point where it no longer seems pre-occupied with lofty expectations. If the last two movies seemed confined because they were part of a trilogy, this one feels freer to go where it wants and tell its own story. It’s trimmed some of the others’ fat and it’s all the better for it.

Johnny Depp (who else?) returns as the inimitable Captain Jack Sparrow, who’s just as droll, flamboyant and buzzed as ever. He’s still searching for his precious ship, the Black Pearl, but other matters arise when he’s interrogated by King George II (Richard Griffiths), who presses him for the location of the Fountain of Youth, which Sparrow previously claimed to know. But that Sparrow was an imposter and, as it turns out, Jack’s old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz). She impersonated Jack in hopes of gathering a crew to find the Fountain in order to save her infamous pirate-father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who, according to a prophecy, faces an imminent death at the hands of a one-legged man.

Speaking of which, Jack’s on-again off-again enemy, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), is back and now serving as a captain in the British navy. The king orders him and Sparrow to reach the Fountain before the Spanish, but Sparrow narrowly escapes their clutches, only to find himself a prisoner on Blackbeard’s ship. He leads a mutiny but it proves futile against a pirate like Blackbeard, who possesses magical powers as well as a Captain Jack voodoo doll, neither of which he’s hesitant to show off.

There’s a lot more going on in this movie than I’ve revealed, which worried me since one of the flaws of the last Pirates was its convoluted plot and equally bloated action sequences. But On Stranger Tides is able to sidestep those problems because director Rob Marshall keeps the narration focused and all the events in the screenplay are somehow logically connected. We’re more engaged this time around because the characters and action affect one another and actually serve a purpose, however silly or ostentatious they may be. In the last movie, too much felt random and the multiple plots were confusing to the point where we just didn’t care about them.

But I found myself getting swept up in the fantasy and romance of On Stranger Tides, including the budding relationship between the ship’s outspoken clergyman (Sam Claflin) and a potentially vicious mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). They gave the movie a sweet and tender side I wasn’t expecting.

Another notable quality is Depp himself. Sure, there aren’t many new things he can do with the Captain Jack character, but Depp is still enthusiastic and livens things up when and where he can. He has good chemistry with Cruz and Rush and their playful banter kept the momentum going in between the outlandish stunts and action sequences, of which there is no shortage.

But, to be clear, the stunts and action sequences are coherent, well crafted and often exciting. They help make On Stranger Tides an experience that’s about as fun and forgettable as most summer blockbusters. The movie is entertaining and holds our interest for its two-hour plus running time, but it’s probably not something you’ll remember for very long, other than you enjoyed it. And is that not the movie’s primary function, however temporary? It may not be as good or memorable as the original, but at this point in the series, it would be foolish to think it would be.