Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 128 Minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 10+
Latest ‘Pirates’ sequel, ‘On Stranger Tides,’ could be worse. But it also could be way better.
By Roxana Hadadi
Well, here we are. “Fast Five” kicked off this summer’s season of sequels on April 29, and now, barely three weeks later, we have “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” the fourth film in a series of flicks based on a Disney amusement park ride. This is your cinematic reality, America. This is democracy! This is capitalism! Revel in it!
If you thought “Pirates” would be over in 2007, when Johnny Depp, Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom sailed “At World’s End,” you clearly don’t understand Hollywood. That film had a $300 million budget and made more than $960 million, so of course, even without Knightley and Bloom reprising their roles, we get “On Stranger Tides.” But while most of the first three films’ elements recur again here — producer Jerry Bruckheimer, writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott — there are some very important distinctions that certainly set the film apart from its predecessors. They’re pretty simple: A less-manic director and a less-manic story.
Compared to “At World’s End” and 2006’s “Dead Man’s Chest,” which grew increasingly convoluted after 2003’s surprisingly good “Curse of the Black Pearl,” “On Stranger Tides” is positively straightforward, acting as a standalone flick instead of linked to the others. Forget everything you learned about Will (Bloom) and Elizabeth (Knightley), because those characters don’t appear and aren’t mentioned. Instead, the movie is based on the novel “On Stranger Tides” by Tim Powers, who sold the rights to Disney; new director Gore Verbinski — he replaces Rob Marshall, who helmed the previous three flicks — grabs some key elements from the novel and centers the narrative purely around Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).
The pirate with all the eyeliner, jewelry and hair accessories was the breakout star of the franchise, and here he’s jettisoned to the forefront, no longer just Elizabeth’s flirting partner or Will’s sometimes-rival. But Sparrow being the protagonist of “On Stranger Tides” is kind of a curse: No longer allowed to just loiter in the background as the effeminate, antihero drunk, the character is often forced to play it straight, losing the unique charm and wit he exhibited in the previous films. Instead, other characters like long-beleaguered Capt. Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and new baddie Blackbeard (Ian McShane) are given more leeway: Barbossa’s sneers and smirks are a welcome wink at the audience, and Blackbeard’s ruthlessness and supernatural qualities make him a proper villain.
Oh, and Penélope Cruz is here, too, as the conniving, beautiful Angelica, daughter of Blackbeard, former lover of Sparrow and current pirate. Cruz is throaty and sultry, everything the character needs to be, and overall she’s fine, I suppose.
And the whole movie is that way — fine. It has some thrills and some romance and some adventure; it will grab your attention and hold it, since the plot is more streamlined and the special effects are (mostly) successful. But while it will work for kids and teens, the PG-13 film isn’t memorable enough for older audiences already used to these hi-jinks. Without all that rum, Sparrow is actually kind of boring.
Here he’s again trying to find his beloved ship, the Black Pearl, and attempts to reunite with first mate and best friend Gibbs (Kevin McNally) — but the English monarchy isn’t having it. Instead, King George II (Richard Griffiths) captures Sparrow and commands him to serve Great Britain by finding the Fountain of Youth before the Catholic Spanish do; now that Barbossa is working for the king, he expects Sparrow to sell out, too. But of course the eyeliner-wearing rebel refuses to acquiesce, instead crossing paths with one-time lover Angelica, who tricks him into serving on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, her father Blackbeard’s ship. They’re similar looking for the fountain, and since rumor says Sparrow has a map to the location, he’s the one everyone’s gunning for.
So begins the race to the fountain, pitting the three teams against each other and various foes along the way, such as beautiful, deadly mermaids, led by Tamara (model Gemma Ward), and zombies magically created by Blackbeard. There’s some talk of religion and of love — more serious topics that allow for Sparrow’s further, albeit limited, character development — but ultimately this is a movie about the action. For younger viewers, a lot of this PG-13 stuff will be enthralling: Well-executed swordfights, savagery from the mermaids and jumps off cliffs make up the bulk of the adventure, and should be fine for teens and older pre-teens. Some things are scary, like numerous corpses, the mermaids’ fangs and claws, voodoo dolls and the zombies’ numerously pierced faces; there’s no actual nudity, but Cruz drops some cleavage and the mermaids are implied to be topless.
But it’s all old fare for “Pirates” devotees — the sexual innuendos, Sparrow’s shrieks and girly running, the pirates’ double-crossing — and unlike the previous films, which always seemed to take the action a step further, “On Stranger Tides” doesn’t match that absurdity. It has a course and it runs it, and that’s it.
In that way, “On Stranger Tides” is an adequate sequel: It gives viewers a little more than expected and builds its characters a bit (even if the 3-D is completely unnecessary and only used for a smattering of scenes). After the 128 minutes are done, though, you’ll realize you just spent two hours treading water.