REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is Both Good-Natured and Exhausting
Rob Marshall's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the most modest picture in the Pirates franchise since the 2003 Curse of the Black Pearl -- which doesn't mean it's necessarily modest. On Stranger Tides, shot in 3-D, offers more muted special effects, more swashbuckling and swordplay and perhaps fewer needless plot twists than either the 2006 Dead Man's Chest or the 2007 At World's End. Both of those movies took everything that was casual and fun about the first picture and shackled it with million-dollar handcuffs. They were expensive-looking and clumsy, out to impress us rather than settle for anything so mundane as to simply entertain us.
On Stranger Tides doesn't clamor quite so loudly for our attention, which is a blessed relief. Still, the picture is cluttered and convoluted and big, and Marshall -- taking over the reins from Gore Verbinski -- doesn't seem to grasp how exhausting nonstop action can be. There's a scuffle, a sword fight or a bit of tumbling or running every five minutes or so, as if Marshall and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio didn't trust us to absorb anything so mundane as a simple conversation between two characters.
But at the very least, On Stranger Tides has a good-natured glow about it. And in the midst of its scaled-back yet still excessive visual effects, it does attempt to offer a few silvery flashes of wonder, instead of just thinly veiled latex and computer-enhancements masquerading as magic.
Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow: Having lost his ship, he's landbound in London, and when he hears a Jack Sparrow impostor is assembling a crew, he decides to investigate. Coming face-to-face with his mustachioed doppelganger, he discovers it's one of his long-lost loves in drag. Angelica (Penélope Cruz) looks fetching even in her pasted-on facial hair, and though Jack pretends she's nothing to him -- he is, after all, the son of a rolling stone -- it's clear she holds some sort of spell over him. (Keith Richards fans will want to know that he does appear in Pirates 4, in one brief scene.)
The rather muddled plot of On Stranger Tides involves a race to stake a claim on Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth: The Spanish want it; the English want it, and Jack's old nemesis, the peg-legged Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), has been put in charge of procuring it for the crown. Fearsome pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) also has one heavily mascara'ed eye on it. It also turns out that Angelica may or may not be Blackbeard's daughter: She's nothing if not a princess of duplicity.
The ensuing adventure covers both sea and land, and the endless skirmishes between the multiple parties involved are blandly enjoyable, if a little repetitive. Shot by Dariusz Wolski (also the DP behind the other Pirates films), the picture doesn't look quite as sparkling as it should: The seafaring scenes are a little too misty and murky, though the color quotient perks up when the various parties arrive in the jungle -- those waving green fronds jolt the visuals awake. Depp seems more relaxed (and a little less mumbly) than he did in the last few Pirates pictures, and it's fun to see him slip so comfortably into one of his most pleasurable creations. I didn't realize how much I'd missed seeing that semi-drunken Jack Sparrow walk: He strut is a little like that of his namesake bird, his pelvis thrust forward, his head bobbing and weaving as if he were following the lure of some unseen dazzling object.
The visual effects in On Stranger Tides aren't assaultive, but they're not particularly memorable, either. Except for one: One of the talismans necessary to activate the Fountain of Youth is a mermaid's tear. Just find a mermaid and make her cry. Easy-peasy, right? Well, no. These mermaids are gorgeous, glimmering creatures who surround the little boat of our intrepid explorers, instantly enchanting them with their beauty; then they leap out of the water, fangs bared and tails flapping. These murderous maids are mildly terrifying.
Apparently, though, they're not all cut from the same bolt of glistening spandex mesh. The aptly named Syrena (played by winsome French actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is a gentler sort, and she's the first mer-girl we get to see up-close. Her skin sparkles softly, like the nearly-naked evening dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang "Happy Birthday" to JFK; her hair arranges itself conveniently and perfectly over her merely alluded-to mermaid breasts. Syrena is captured by our greedy explorers and put in a glass-walled carrying case, where she languishes sadly, her evening-dress tail dejected and still. Not to worry -- she'll swim again, although we don't get any specifics about what happens to her after we see that final, shimmery flash of tail. That would be one small thing to look forward to, at least, in a Pirates 5.
[This is an edited version of a review published following the film's Cannes premiere; read more of Stephanie Zacharek's Cannes 2011 coverage here.]