Monday, May 23, 2011

Live action films: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

First, the non-spoiler highlights: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seeks to reinvigorate the franchise in this, its fourth installment, by leaving behind much of the baggage of the previous films and focusing instead on a much more focused stand-alone adventure. The second and third Pirates seemed to feel required not only to return every character we'd met before and give them ample screen time, but also find ways to repeat many of the jokes and favorite bits we'd seen before. On Stranger Tides feels no such obligation, jettisoning most of the supporting characters, and making no attempt to squeeze in yet another "why is the rum gone?" joke or appearance of a dog carrying a ring of keys.

The series' standout creation, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, was the most important supporting character in the first film, a co-protagonist in the previous sequels, and here transitions into the role of the movie's central figure. I had misgivings about this, worrying that Sparrow as solo protagonist might be too much of a good thing. Stranger Tides manages to dodge that bullet, in part, by still surrounding Jack by a number of colorful characters (some old, mostly new), each with their own attitudes and motivations. It's other method of converting Jack to the center of this movie is to humanize him a bit too - still a very funny character, he's less the outright buffoon he'd become in the second and third films, and, more surprisingly, his motivations are no longer complete selfish.

Jack Sparrow and Barbossa are two of the few returning characters.

This is a Captain Jack who has grown, if ever-so slightly - something a true protagonist needs to do. What we love about Jack hasn't changed all that much, and the growth is logical after what he's been through.

Angelica and Blackbeard bring new blood to the series.

The most important other characters are Penelope Cruz as Angelica, Ian McShane as the legendary Blackbeard, and Geoffrey Rush returning as Barbossa. Angelica is both foil and possible romantic interest for Sparrow, and Cruz handles those demands with aplomb. McShane is the perfect choice for the role of Blackbeard, "the pirate that even pirates fear," but is sadly underutilized. As the returning Barbossa, Rush had both the juiciest role and the most commanding performance of the film. The decision to keep him around while few others returned was a wise one, and results in the most satisfying storyline in On Stranger Tides.

Star-crossed lovers Philip and Syrena.

A romantic subplot on the story's periphery between charismatic and attractive newcomers Philip (Sam Clafin) and Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) adds grace and sweetness without overpowering or bogging down the story's main action (as the Will/Elizabeth romance did, at times, in the previous installments).

On Stranger Tides is a worthy addition to the series, and a smart reinvention. This movie is both leaner and, at the same time, makes the world of the Pirates of the Caribbean seem like a bigger place. Even after four outings, I'm now looking forward to more again. I give Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides eight out of ten mice: (Spoilers discussed after the rating)

Spoilers ahoy!

How I love Barbossa's storyline in this movie. When we first meet him, he appears to be a shadow of his former self. Once a pirate rockstar, he's now sold out to King George - a privateer at the beck and call of the crown. What's more, when he lost the Black Pearl to Blackbeard, he also lost his leg. He seems a victim and a broken man who has given up on his passion and ideals.

Barbossa reveals his true motives in my favorite scene in the movie.

None of that is actually the case. Somewhere around the middle of the movie we learn the truth: Barbossa chopped off his own leg in order to escape from Blackbeard with his life. Suddenly that loss seems like an act of strength and defiance. Next we learn he's only signed up as a privateer in order to exploit the king's resources for his own desire to hunt down Blackbeard to mete out bloody revenge. Barbossa isn't a dog who's been tamed, he's the same wild wolf he's always been, and he's just waiting for he right time to pounce.

This mermaid does not want to be part of your world.

On Stranger Tides introduces mermaids into the Pirates of the Caribbean mythology. These Disney mermaids, though, are no relation of Ariel's, but are instead the darkest version of the mermaid, legend - the kind that seduce sailors and drag them into the depths for a watery death. They're also a little bit like vampires. The mermaid attack is the movie's eeriest and most exciting sequence. I love the shot from below the skiff full of pirate bait when we see shadowy mermaids circling the little boat like hungry sharks.

A movie scene looks a lot like this scene from Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean.

For fans of the theme park attraction, there's a very nice reference to the ride, woven organically into the story. At one point, Sparrow and Barbossa discover the ruins of Ponce de Leon's ship, and within they find the corpse of the explorer in his bed, examining part of the mountain of treasure that surrounds him with a magnifying glass. It's an image lifted from the opening cavern scenes of the ride with minor alterations.

A couple of interesting points implied by the story, but never overtly stated:

1) You probably noticed there's a kid among the group on Blackbeard's ship. It's never stated, but I assume that kid is along because he's the person Blackbeard intends to steal years from at the Fountain of Youth.

2) Barbossa tells the tale of Blackbeard taking the Pearl, but we don't get to see it. We can't assume anything then, but the implication is strong that through cutting off his leg, Barbossa was the only person to survive (along with the unkillable undead monkey). If everyone else was killed, that certainly implies the deaths of at least most of the people we saw last crewing the Black Pearl, including Pintel, Ragetti, Mr. Cotton, Marty, and those two British navy men who turned pirate right at the end of At World's End. Now if they want to bring any of those characters back, they can always invent a reason that they left Barbossa before the attack, but until we see them again, they're presumed dead.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for a good pirate yarn, but after On Stranger Tides, I'm already feeling something I didn't feel right after At World's End: A desire for more (and besides, we still haven't get to my favorite brand of supernatural pirates: ghosts).

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