It may be a multi-billion dollar franchise now, but in hindsight the Pirates of the Caribbean films were a bit of a long-shot. Back when Gore Verbinski’s first installment was being pieced together, Disney executives were not only concerned by the public’s willingness to embrace a pirate film, but one based on a successful theme park ride no less.
More to the point, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow confused the then-CEO of Disney Michael Eisner, who was unsure as to whether he was drunk or just very effeminate. Going against his better judgment and trusting Depp’s acting, the team created one of the first great iconic characters of the twenty-first century, and in the process spawned two sequels: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
After springing a comrade from a London prison, Sparrow (Depp, Rango) soon learns that an impostor is gathering a crew in his name. Learning that the doppelgänger is ex-lover Angelica (Penélope Cruz, Sex And The City 2), Jack soon finds himself on a quest to find the fabled fountain of youth. Pursued by his old foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech), now in the employ of His Majesty’s Navy, and racing against the Spanish crown, things get a little complicated when Jack winds up as part of the dread pirate Blackbeard’s (Ian McShane, The Pillars of the Earth) crew.
Much of the continuing appeal of the Pirates of the Caribbean series has undoubtedly been the central figure of Captain Jack Sparrow, a character Depp has had plenty of practice at making wholly his own. Yet Sparrow did not so much evolve over the course of the three original films, but rather he sprang fully formed from the collective minds of writers Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio and of course, Depp himself. It was as if Sparrow was always there in the back of our minds, lurking and waiting to pop out and steal our jewellery. Such a force of nature was Captain Jack that his role became increasingly central to the plots of the films. The love story between original cast members Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom became the second fiddle to the larger-than-life character, to the extent that Bloom’s Will Turner was greatly diminished in Dead Man’s Chest and virtually irrelevant in At World’s End. It is no stretch to replace their archetypes in this latest installment, with hunky straight-laced preacher Philip (Sam Clafin, The Pillars of the Earth) and the beautiful mermaid Seyrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, The Well-Digger’s Daughter) neatly slipping into the roles of the star-crossed lovers.
Indeed, with Barbossa taking a step to the left to become the Navy representative, and Blackbeard now “the pirate all pirates fear”, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides makes no secret of the fact that this is pure fanservice. For the fourth film in the series is a romp pure and simple. It may be a formulaic plot that we have seen countless times before, but it harks back to a matinée serial tradition that is a rare thing in modern filmmaking. Yet despite the presence of the original writers, this latest entry lacks much of the spark of originality that catapulted the series into the cash-cow franchise it is today. Too much time is spent in frenetic inactivity, with set-piece action scenes following one after the other, with little advancement to plot or character. Almost everything in the film, from the familiar opening to the presence of Keith Richards in a delightful cameo, is a sly wink to the audience. However, without the momentum and sheer audacity of the original film, the genuine moments of wit and charm are few and far between. While Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is by no means a tarnish on the legacy of a cinematic adventure, but its very adherence to all the scenery that work in the first few entries is precisely what holds it back from soaring. Savvy?
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was released on 19 May 2011 in Australia from Disney.