Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a whole lot better than the last two. Maybe not the best thing that can be said of the movie, but it's a fact that rings true with every beautifully framed tableau vivant. Where has Rob Marshall been in this series' life? If it weren't for an inane, shoehorned-in subplot involving a mermaid and the preacher she loves, Tides might've even topped Gore Verbinski's The Curse of the Black Pearl.
As it stands, the latest Pirates adventure is a mostly inoffensive movie with some beautiful scenery, well-staged action and colorful characters -- everything that fans came to expect after the first outing. If there's any surprise at all -- even though it shouldn't be by now -- it's that Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, entertaining as he is, is a far less compelling character than Ian McShane's Blackbeard or Geoffrey Rush's Hector Barbossa. We've always suspected as much with Depp/Rush pairing, but as fine of an actor as Depp is, his one-note Sparrow doesn't stand a chance when McShane is introduced into the mix.
Tides basically picks up the story threads left dangling in At World's End, only with pesky characters like Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner finally trimmed out. Sparrow, Barbossa and newcomer Blackbeard -- along with his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) -- all have their own reasons for wanting to reach the Fountain of Youth. The why doesn't really matter until the very end, so why spoil it here? Ultimately, you have three different interests in search of the movie's principal MacGuffin, plus a fourth -- a fleet of Spanish ships -- that exists with the sole purposes of raising the stakes at key points in the story.
That's all absolutely fine for a big-budget blockbuster. Some might be disappointed that McShane never quite manages to tap into the darkest depths of Deadwood's Al Swearengen in his portrayal of the legendary pirate Blackbeard, but this is still a Disney movie. The humor and the action work, and even Blackbeard gets a few creepy moments, thanks at different points to magically coiling rope and a Pirates-era flamethrower.
The writing is really where Tides starts to show some strain. Our key characters are given lines and scenes they can work with, but the surrounding cast is left with little to do. The biggest offender, as previously noted, is a subplot involving the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and the human preacher who falls for her, Philip (Sam Claflin).
The mermaid is necessary component in the story, as her tears are needed to access the Fountain of Youth. Mermaids in the Pirates fiction are vicious things, vampire-shark-harpies that lure prey with their feminine wiles and then tear them apart on the ocean floor. Syrena is just another undersea soldier until Philip saves her from death and love blossoms.
It's a trite bit of storytelling that gets too little development and feels entirely unearned, especially when their relationship is revealed for the plot mechanism that it is. It's a double-edged sword here; the movie is better for not spending too much time developing these two boring characters, but the essential story elements that keep them around make the relationship feel cheap and detract from the overall experience.
Which is a great shame, since director Rob Marshall is clearly the right man for this job. His appreciation for theater and the understanding for scene staging that it brings works marvelously well in the context of this series. Marshall leaves his work on musicals behind in all ways but one: On Stranger Tides has a rhythm, a soulful backbeat that carries it along, dominating every scene. Whether it's pirates working their trade on a ship's deck or Jack and Angelica sharing a musical moment -- sans singing -- there's a head-nodding flow to the unfolding story that keeps it from going entirely off the rails, even when Philip and Syrena make their necessary appearances.
This is helped, of course, by the core quartet of stars, Depp, Cruz, McShane and Rush. McShane maybe could have brought a bit more darkness to the role, but you'll overlook that when you hear his rumbling baritone dropping archaic English phrases. As for Rush, this is his movie in every way. It's no coincidence that the most memorable scene in the movie's final minutes belongs to him and his triumphs. It becomes clear at that point what could really save this franchise: a shift in focus to Hector Barbossa.
That said, Depp's Sparrow is back and just as we remember him. He bobs around the screen like a drunken dandy, spitting out one-liners and twirling his sword for effect when necessary. He and Cruz get to have a fun back and forth that does a lot of work in carrying along the more action-free scenes. If there's anything negative to say, it's really just that Sparrow isn't as engaging a character as he once was. The second and third Pirates movies had their own issues, but neither was helped by the been-there-done-that appeal of Sparrow's antics being repeated again and again.
Seriously, Disney ... let Rush steer this ship moving forward. Depp is great, and always a welcome presence, but his character's unchanging nature has become more of a burden than anything else. He was born as a comic foil, and that's where he should remain. Sparrow will never be a heroic Errol Flynn-type without betraying everything that makes the character so appealing in the first place. Barbossa won't either, but his hero/anti-hero qualities are what make him so watchable to begin with. Go with that.
There's nothing to hate about On Stranger Tides and quite a bit to like. The mermaid/preacher subplot is an eye-rolling distraction, but it shouldn't deter you from having a good time while the stars do their thing. Also, as I said before, mermaids as vampire shark harpies. This might not be the fully triumphant return for the series that fans had hoped for after the previous two installments, but it is worthy of the Pirates name nonetheless and a (mostly) good time besides.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opens today nationwide.