BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After a daring escape from a London court and a meeting with King George II, Captain Jack Sparrow teams up with the pirate Bluebeard and his daughter to search for the Fountain of Youth.
PROS: …I’m thinking, I’m thinking…okay, the mermaid hunt, maybe…
CONS: Fine source material jettisoned for a script that incorporates numerous chases to little or no effect; scenery chewing by most of the major players; listless action sequences and lackluster direction; borrows heavily from other, far better movies.
Once, a very fine writer named Tim Powers penned a very fine novel titled On Stranger Tides, about a thoughtful, reluctant, brooding young man who, as he searches for his missing uncle, meets an Oxford professor obsessed with locating the Fountain of Youth, finds his ship waylaid by pirates, and must deal with Blackbeard and zombies and numerous other occult trapping. It’s a slender book but a dense, enjoyable story, full of the kind of derring-do and secret histories for which Powers has made himself famous (or at least famous in science fiction circles), a delicious blending of Rafael Sabitini and Lord Dunsany from which, in 2003, Disney borrowed heavily when it hired Gore Verbinski to helm Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a somewhat bloated yet slender tale whose blending or sorcery and swashbuckling caused many within the science fiction community to ask if Tim Powers should sue.
Someone at Disney must have asked the same question, because three sequels later, they purchased the rights to make a Pirates of the Caribbean movie “suggested from” Powers’s novel, perhaps to silence lawyers rattling their sabers in Powers’s name. Alas, even to call Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides “suggested from” On Stranger Tides is to read the words “suggested” and “from” in a charitable fashion, for while screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio retain both Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth, they retain none of the novel’s intelligence or wit. Or, for that matter, much of its storyline. Or characters. Or…fill in the blank. What they have concocted instead is a listless tale of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, wolfing down scenery like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet) shanghaied into the service of Blackbeard (Ian McShane, who also appears equally scenery-malnourished) and his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz, who outdoes even her own bland caricature of “acting,” and threatens to be devoured by both Depp and McShane) who are looking for Ponce Deleon’s fabled Fountain. To call it a pale imitation would be an insult to pale imitations.
Not that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides couldn’t have been an enjoyable ride. It certainly starts promisingly enough, with Sparrow impersonating a Judge to free his former First Mate Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from a piracy trial, only to be recaptured by King George II’s (Richard Griffiths, also chewing…ah, hell, from this point on, unless I mention otherwise, assume that everybody here is living off a steady diet of props and scenery) crown forces for an audience with the King. It seems that Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in the King’s Court and present during Sparrow’s audience, will be leading an expedition to locate the Fountain of Youth, which they see as a weapon to be used against their enemies, and Sparrow is the only man alive who knows its location. Barbosa also has lost Sparrow’s ship the Black Pearl, news of which causes Sparrow to make an escape reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Naturally Sparrow finds himself on a quest to locate the Fountain after learning from his father Captain Teague (Keith Richards, one of the few actors demonstrating anything resembling subtlety, and again far too much of a nod to the third Indiana Jones) that said quest will result in trouble. Naturally he winds up on Blackbeard’s ship, pursued by Barbosa, who lost his leg to Blackbeard…who in turn is pursued by the Spanish, who want to destroy the Fountain as an abomination.
Though Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides sounds full in synopsis, it is in fact a restless movie, made even more frantic under Rob Marshall’s direction. For all of the chases, pirate mutinies, and even Blackbeard’s zombie crewmen, Marshall struggles to fill the nearly two-hour twenty-minute running time with the sword-and-swashbuckling that made the first movie, if not great, then at least watchable. Sometimes he succeeds; the Fountain of Youth only works with the addition of mermaid’s tears, so one moonlit night Blackbeard’s crew fishes for mermaids, allowing them to capture one dubbed Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, beautiful, again far more subtle than anybody else here). Effective, but not enough to lift the movie out of mediocrity and worse. That the screenplay makes Sparrow the movie’s central character also hampers things. As a secondary character in the previous movies, Sparrow provided comic relief to already tongue-in-cheek material; as the central character in a cast even more eccentric than what one would find in a Fellini movie, he mires everything into a painfully unfunny bog. And the less said of the chemistry-free pairing of Depp and Cruz, the better
A part of me hopes that, for all of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides‘s negatives, that it does well at the box office, and makes Tim Powers a household name. I would love for the tie-in edition of the novel to make him a mint. No doubt the movie will do well, but the novel likely won’t generate even a ten thousandth of the several hundred million its adaptation will rake in hand over fist. And that’s a shame, but ultimately, in the world of Hollywood, not surprising.