REVIEW - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opened today in theatres, and I think some fans of the series (or even those who aren’t familiar with it) might be wondering just how good this fourth entry is. Longer-running franchises like this often imply a stagnation of the story, or the main characters overstaying their welcome on screens. In the case of this film, I think the opposite is true. I think On Stranger Tides does a lot to rekindle our interest in this film universe - it's far from a commercial cash-grab.

The film opens in a strange location, at least when it comes to the Pirates movies. The first act takes place in Europe – England for the most part. Previously, the films always started with some unrest in the Caribbean itself, but the writers seem to be taking us back to the centre of European colonialism as if to say, “Time for a fresh start.” And that’s exactly what we get: a franchise reboot of sorts to remind fans of where the characters have come from and to give new viewers a chance to insert themselves into the world of the film.

Jack Sparrow is captured by the English and ordered to give the directions to finding the Fountain of Youth to the King – played by the impeccably cast Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon Dursley of Harry Potter). Sparrow crafts a cunning escape, of course, leading the King to dispatch Captain Barbossa (now an English privateer) to reach the Fountain before Sparrow or the Spanish (who are also en route). Sparrow hitches a ride (perhaps involuntarily) aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the pirate vessel of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane). This setup allows a number of subplots to break away from the main story, but I felt that the filmmakers did a good job of keeping them all in line towards the one goal.

We get our expected dose of swashbuckling, witty dialogue and spectacular scenery (Both onboard the ships and off). None of it feels stale – it’s a tribute to director Rob Marshall that after three films directed by Gore Verbinski, Marshall is able to pick up the reigns and continue on as normal, while incorporating some fresh characters and events.

New to the series is a cleric named Philip (a charming Sam Claflin), who sort of fills the “noble” role in the story vacated by Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner (who doesn’t appear). Also absent are Pintel and Ragetti, the two entertaining minor pirates from the previous films. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss any of these series regulars – I was more than willing to cheer on a new cast. The newcomers are mostly foils for the electric performance of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, but Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane don’t slouch in their supporting performances.

I think that the best feature of this film is that it efficiently distances itself from the other movies. Not that Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann or any of the other assorted characters were disappointing (or even the associated stories), but it’s nice to see a completely fresh take on the series. The first three Pirates movies dealt with the Davy Jones/Bootstrap Bill story arc, and now it’s time to set Jack Sparrow (who really is the anchor of the series and the majority of the attraction) off in a new direction to tussle with people like Blackbeard or his fiery daughter.

Ian McShane does a good job as the fearsome Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, reimagined here as a combination between the pirate of history and a voodoo sorcerer. He has a mystical control over his officers and his ship – a power that helps sell him as a menacing villain in the magic-infused world of the Pirates films. His ship matches the detailed visual design of previous vessels like the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman, and comes complete with a cool signature weapon (in line with Davy Jones' triple cannons). His sword is also great fun: a wide-bladed cross between a cutlass and a sabre, reminiscent of the outrageous weapons in Japanese RPG games.

You might not expect a summer adventure movie like On Stranger Tides to have any complex visual or thematic elements, but the writers have built in material that could give any film scholar something to chew on. The visuals and the script playfully manipulate film symbolism, including a thrilling swordfight between two Jack Sparrows and some interesting sexual innuendo with two silver chalices. There are a number of references to religion, often tied to the cleric Philip’s faith or the assumed hellish fate of Blackbeard. The Spanish also have a role to play here, popping up near the end of the film to do something that both justifies their place in the story and connects to the Spanish fleets of history.

In fact, there are a few more historical touches through this film as a whole, with appearances from contemporary monarchs and mentions of the real adventurers who first explored the locations of the film. This grounds On Stranger Tides in a way, making the story seem more plausible even with the inclusion of voodoo magic or the Fountain of Youth.

The film does trip up in a few places near the end, rushing the ending of a couple of plot threads and failing to bring Philip’s story to a satisfying conclusion. For that reason, On Stranger Tides misses out on a perfect score, getting three stars out of four for its reinvigorating take on the series, a more historically-grounded film universe and a good balance of familiar and new characters.

A note on the 3D: I saw On Stranger Tides in 3D, and while the 3D was added after shooting via the post-conversion method, I was pleasantly surprised by the 3D in a number of scenes, especially during the escape from the King’s palace early in the film. It’s definitely one of the better examples of this style of 3D I’ve seen in a while, but still doesn’t match footage natively recorded or animated in stereoscopic format.

-Check out my other reviews of Sucker Punch and Thor!-