The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise seemed to have run out of steam somewhat in the third movie, At World’s End. Fortunately, the fourth one and the first without Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), turned out better than its predecessor.
On Stranger Tides starts off with the Spanish discovering the map to the Fountain of Youth, before switching over to London where we find Jack rescuing his former First Mate, Gibbs, who was being charged in court for the crime of being a pirate – specifically, a pirate called Jack Sparrow. Their escape attempt is foiled and good ol’ Captain Sparrow finds himself in an audience with King George, who wants him to guide an expedition to the Fountain of Youth because he cannot allow the Spanish and their “melancholy monarch” to beat him to it. Jack declines and blithely leaps out a window, descending into the 18th century English equivalent of a crazy car chase. He runs into an old flame (Penelope Cruz). One thing leads to another and Jack ends up on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, also known as the ship belonging to the dreaded pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and Angelica – the aforementioned old flame – turns out to be the First Mate and the daughter of Blackbeard. The Fountain of Youth being the MacGuffin of this story means that Blackbeard is also headed in the direction of the Fountain of Youth as well as the items needed for the “profane ritual” – two silver chalices from the Ponce de Leon’s ship, and a mermaid’s tear. Close behind is Barbossa, who has turned from his pirate ways into a government-approved privateer after losing his right leg and – to Jack’s annoyance – the Black Pearl as well.
It’s a tighter story than At World’s End was, which definitely works to the film’s advantage. There being no Will or Elizabeth to share the spotlight, the focus is solely on Jack now and he’s still the same – walking with that peculiar half-drunk and almost effeminite swagger, being arrogant, and dropping humorous lines and sarcastic quips when needed: “You stole me, and now I’m here to take meself back.” “Captain, I wish to report a mutiny – I can name fingers and point names.” “You know that feeling you get when you’re standing in a high place and you have sudden urge to jump? … I don’t have it.” Some people complain that Jack Sparrow has shown no character growth whatsoever. It’s true, he hasn’t grown. But do we really want Jack to become a “better” person? I think part of the crazy kookiness comes from his unpredictability – from not knowing exactly when his “goodness” will set in or when his bad pirate self will prevail.
And from here on, there be spoilers.
Ooh, and the part where Blackbeard pulled out his sword and said, “Mutineers… HANG.” In terms of scene set up and performance, I really liked it. The line delivery and the preceding shots that set it up – chillingly good. Or so my memory seems to think at the moment.
A little before that was a scene where Jack and another pirate climb the mast to free (or kill) the missionary, Swift, whom Blackbeard has tied to the mast – his form of mercy, I suppose, since his daughter, who seems to still have remnants of religious faith, wants to save her father’s soul and begged for the missionary’s life to be spared. The other pirate demands to know where Swift’s loyalties lie (“You’re either with us or against us!”) and Swift responds, “I am neither with you nor against you!” “Can he do that?” asks the pirate of Jack. “He’s religious. I think it’s required.” hahah! And yet, that kinda makes one think…
There were a couple of unexpected little twists – Barbossa with a wig and in the Navy uniform along with a peg leg in his first appearance in the movie was such a one. For a moment I actually wondered if that was supposed to be Barbossa or his twin brother. (Maybe other people knew of this beforehand, I didn’t. I don’t recall it in the trailers, and obviously didn’t look close enough at some of the movie posters.) The fact that mermaids turn human – i.e. the tail becomes two legs – when out of water was another. I bet Ariel wishes she knew that before selling her voice to Ursula in exchange for legs. Most unexpected, though, was what the Spanish did when they got to the Fountain of Youth. …They destroyed it. (“Only God can give eternal life, not this pagan water!”) And it really did come as a bit of a shock. I did not see that coming.
I couldn’t find any fault with the cast – Depp was fun and brilliant as usual (if only they gave awards for best comedic performance), Cruz did fine, Ian McShane was suitably evil as Blackbeard and Geoffrey Rush almost seemed to be brimming with glee at playing Barbossa again. (Though he must be tired of all that makeup, surely.) The two newbies – Sam Claflin as the missionary Philip Swift and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the mermaid Syrena – did all right. No one irked me in particular, so all good there. hahah
The characters of Swift and Syrena were a little bit useless, maybe, and at times felt like they were there mostly to replace Will and Elizabeth. But I did like that Swift was not portrayed in the way the movies are so fond of portraying any man (or woman) of faith. It doesn’t poke fun at him – or his faith – and he’s actually a rather admirable character. Walks the walk and talks the talk. Stands up to Blackbeard, pities the captured mermaid and tries to protect her, and even believes – for most of the movie – that Blackbeard isn’t a lost cause. I rather like that he did at one point get so angry that he decided Blackbeard was irredeemable – shows a very real, human side. They did end the missionary and mermaid subplot in the rather typical manner though, with the man being saved by romantic love instead of God. Well, it goes with the storyline, I suppose. Anything more complex than that might have muddled the overall plot. (And the Pirates franchise in general is not at all short on convoluted plots.)
Artistically, no complaints either. There were some nice sequences, and I don’t know why but the part where the Spanish show up at the Fountain of Youth really struck me. Figures coming quietly through the fog, flags unfurled, in the midst of a frenetic battle around the famous fountain…
Music-wise, well, I’m a fan of Hans Zimmer’s music for the Pirates movies so I loved it every time I heard those familiar refrains pop up. There seemed to be less of it this time around though. But I must admit that when the film ended and the theme music came up, I felt the urge the applaud – just for the music. (I didn’t, of course. Shy la. hahah) Very similar to what I feel whenever I hear the Star Wars theme.
Thinking about it, for what’s basically a fun, pirate adventure film in a franchise with cursed treasure (the Aztec gold in the first film), a voodoo priestess/ocean goddess (Tia Dalma, in the second and third films), ghostly ships with damned crews (the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman), and a fearsome pirate who is able to exert mind-control on his ship and other ships through his sword, there was rather a lot of spirituality of the Christian sort floating around in this particular installment. From the Catholic/Protestant rivalry between Spain and England (the English king doesn’t like the idea of the Spanish king getting eternal life from the Fountain of Youth – bad king!) to Swift’s sincere and active devotion to the religious motivation of the Spanish to reach the famous fount. Hmm, interesting thing to think about. Perhaps I should watch it again… hahah
Final words: On Stranger Tides is better than At World’s End, but not better than Curse of the Black Pearl (which, by the way, is one of my all-time favourite movies). It is either better than or equal to Dead Man’s Chest. Hard to decide between the two, since I rather think the combination of Jack with Will and Elizabeth is what really made the earlier movies, especially the first. A balance of the crazy and the sane. hahah In any case, this fourth installment is quite worth the watch. It’s not mindblowing, but it’s lots of fun. Just be prepared for those mermaids…