There are many people who love the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” although seeing the awfulness that was “The Country Bears” and knowing that “The Haunted Mansion” was soon to follow, the film just seemed like a similar ploy for Disney to pillage their old tourist attractions and try to eke out a few doubloons. However, Pirates found a savior in Johnny Depp and his oddly mannered but oddly alluring Jack Sparrow — a role that has carved out a place on the list of greatest characters ever committed to celluloid and still the best reason to watch any of the three (now four) Pirates films. The success of the first film led to the inevitable sequels and the unavoidable franchise that developed (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End“). Most said the films that followed the first Pirates installment were unfocused and bloated, a CGI discordance. I, however, find their breadth and scope, the imagination and the gutsy-ness it took to bring these stories to the screen both amazing and inspiring. The fourth film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, is a worthy successor into the further adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow.
In this chapter, Jack finds himself crossing wits and swords with a lady from his past, the mysterious Angelica (Penelope Cruz). She takes him on board the Queen Anne’s Revenge, ship of the brutal and unjust pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and becomes embroiled in a search for the Fountain of Youth. This is a race to see who gets there first. It is run between the Spaniards, Blackbeard’s crew and the indestructible Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) who is more concerned with revenge for his lost ship and his lost leg then after immortality. Along the way they must all contend with zombies, mermaids and all sorts of other devilry.
New to the series is director Rob Marshall, he of “Nine,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and the Academy Award winning “Chicago,” taking over for Gore Verbinski, director of the first three Pirate films. He brings a new sensibility to this movie without taking anything away from what has been established before. As you can see from his filmography, Rob knows a thing or two about song and dance, and this plays into the newness he brings. On the previous iterations of Pirates, Jack got by and won battles on his wits, quick thinking and luck more than anything else. However, this time Rob choreographs the fight scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides like dance routines (Step-two-three-four, Stab-two-three-four) and as such Jack comes across as having somehow learned gymnastics and acrobatics and therefore having far more skill and grace then he’s ever shown before.
What Rob does not do away with, and that which I am glad he does not, is the brutality and the weight of the situations taking place. The Pirate films could have so easily become cartoon-like in their depictions of the life on the high seas, bloodless and play violence, especially under the guidance of the Disney machine. But Gore Verbinski did not shy away from showing a gutted old salt, a boy on the gallows or a sailor meeting his crushing demise under the tentacles of the Kraken and, thankfully, Mr. Marshall is not shy either. There is a scene near the end of the film where a whirlpool rips the flesh off a man’s bones. It brings with it the heft and punch it should . . . as well as a harkening back to a certain Last Crusade.
Rob brings along with him a couple of actresses he worked with on “Nine”; the first being Dame Judy Dench who makes a brief and comedic cameo as a society lady. The second is Penelope Cruz, teaming up with Depp for the first time since “Blow,” who I feel is miscast as the daughter of Blackbeard. She does not have the ruggedness of appearance or personality that we’ve seen in this series from other women of the sea, but instead has to try and balance a loyalty to her father that exposes her emotions with a hardness of heart towards all those she uses and manipulates. It is a disservice to both her as an actress and to the series. There is also a subplot that develops between a missionary and a mermaid (sounds like the beginning of a joke) that went on far too long and which also ended rather ambiguously for the poor missionary. I suppose the writers were trying desperately to fill the hole left by the expulsion of the Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly storyline, but really, anytime away from Jack and his crew was time ill spent.
Those small defects aside, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will join its three brothers on my DVD shelf. I was shown breathtaking sights that I could never have envisioned on my own. I was taken on a journey — an adventure — from one end of the world to the other, though perils and wonders with people I enjoy spending time with. I shared in a story that expanded my imagination and brought into new light things that I previously thought I had already known. I had fun. I cannot ask for anything more from a film. Savvy?