Typically, I am a person who follows the critics. In my opinions of movies, books and music I tend to fall in line with the more “sophisticated” and “learned.” I identify with their desires for innovation, their scorning of the “same old” and their incessant bashings of “do-overs.” On May 20, however, I broke ranks with the critics as, contrary to their clamor of disappointment, I found myself having thoroughly enjoyed “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
Going into the theater on Friday night, I was not quite sure what to expect from the movie I was about to experience. On the one hand, the original “Pirates” had captured my imagination: Jack Sparrow was a simply marvelous character, portrayed brilliantly by Johnny Depp, and all the other actors meshed perfectly onscreen to craft a nearly flawless swashbuckling adventure. However, on the other hand, the two sequels did not live up to the original, convoluting and complicating the tales so that the charm and wit of the first was lost in an ocean of plots and pseudo-fantasy. With this in mind I hoped for a throwback, but braced for another confusing disappointment.
“On Stranger Tides” opens with a somewhat unclear ocean scene offSpain, and quickly moves to a daring, but at first hard to grasp escape from a British court by Jack Sparrow and the returning Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally). Though it was heartening to hear a nice play on words by Sparrow and to see the return of Gibbs, I feared the series was back to its old tricks again. Fortunately, I was soon proven wrong, as a humorous encounter with an English lord and a fantastic, well staged escape are quite enjoyable to watch and the movie soon sets on a steady course. Sparrow unites with Angelica (Penelope Cruz, apparently a former love interest) and her father Blackbeard (played by Ian McShane, though Sparrow is more blackmailed then willingly joining; no pun intended) in their quest for the Fountain of Youth. Blackbeard desires the waters of life because it has been prophesied that in fourteen days he will be killed. Meanwhile, Gibbs must assist Barbossa (Geoffery Rush making a splendid return) who has been commissioned in the Royal Navy as a privateer. Barbossa is also headed for the Fountain, though not for the water, but for revenge on Blackbeard, and all the while the Spanish loom overhead in their own separate quest.
Sounds confusing right? Well, in actuality the plot is remarkably easy to grasp, as it essentially consists of a race to the fountain, with Sparrow caught smack dab in the middle of it, and it is here the critics make their gravest error. They bemoan “Tides” for not having sufficient depth of plot, but in fact this simplicity of purpose is what causes this installment to stand above its predecessors. At its heart “Tides” is simply a fun, exciting pirate tale. Sure there are not great surprises, but it is great fun to see a great variety of pirates, all with conflicting motives race for the same prize. The producers finally realize they can’t make “Pirates” into a complex fantasy style story, so they return to what made the original movie so lovable: good old seafaring adventure from a group of cutthroat scallywags.
The producers embellish the story in as many ways as possible so that, as in all truly good storytelling, the straightforwardness of the plot is never noticeable due to the richness of the characters and circumstances. The action sequences are all thrilling and enjoyable, especially Sparrow’s initial escape (the first sword fight, though, is too similar to the original Sparrow/Turner duel in the first, but it is the only misstep). Shots of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, despite being quite over the top, are immensely satisfying, in part thanks to Hans Zimmer’s rich score for the film, which sets the right mood for the whole film. Sparrow is back up to his original standards: one of the most enjoyable, humorous and intriguing characters to watch in any movie. This is heightened especially thanks to the excellent pairing of Sparrow and Barbossa in the second half of the film. When the two are forced to work together, the on-screen verbal sparring and chemistry of Depp and Rush is simply a joy to experience. Depp and Cruz offer a good amount of romantic tension and humor, but as far as romance goes the relationship between missionary Phillip and captured mermaid Syrena is a highlight. Though not as developed as it could have been, Phillip’s bold acts of defiance, kindness and mercy for Syrena, and Syrena’s gradual acceptance of Phillip is a touching thing to watch, and provides a nice contrast of pure heroism and love to the otherwise backstabbing, dirty, and drinking pirates.
And speaking of mermaids, “On Stranger Tides” incorporates them into one of the more chilling, eerie and at moments terrifying sequences I’ve seen in quite some time and stands out as an accomplishment of utilizing complete cinematography. Blackbeard, unfortunately, does not create the impression we would expect, but McShane is evil enough for us to detest and cunning enough for us to fear, fulfilling his requirements and is carried by the rest of the cast.
Ultimately, “On Stranger Tides” succeeds because the producers realized that “Pirates” can never be a complex, thoughtful, science-fiction style series, but rather is a swashbuckling story that thrives on the skullduggery of its characters. Critics may complain of the plot’s simplicity, but it is this simplicity that makes it so refreshing, as Jack Sparrow and company are allowed to carry the film. Filled with its share of laughs, suspense, action and romance, “On Stranger Tides” is the perfect movie for those of us who are not too stuck up and sophisticated to enjoy a good old fashioned pirate tale at its finest.