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Review: 'Pirates of the Caribbean 4' Is a Soggy Sea Chanty That Seems Awfully Familiar

by Drew Taylor
May 13, 2011 11:48 AM
19 Comments
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Executive producers of television series talk about needing to do a "bottle episode," usually about a third of the way through the season when they've unnecessarily overspent on the earlier episodes and need to save up so that the finale can go out with a bang. In a lot of ways "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (yes, that's the actual title) feels like a "bottle episode" in the franchise, one in which the scale is cut back tremendously, extraneous mythology shaved away, with the lavish direction of the original trilogy (by Gore Verbinski, who helmed one of this year's very best movies, "Rango") replaced with someone whose vision is, if not entirely lacking, somewhat more made-for-TV.

The results, as they say, may vary. On one hand, you'll be incredibly relieved to know that the film has greatly reduced the number of characters (hope you weren't too attached to Orlando Bloom or Keira Knightley) and tangential subplots (but there are still too many), while focusing on the shifting allegiances of our beloved Captain Jack Sparrow (once again Johnny Depp, having a ball). But at the same time you'll wish that things were a little bit, well, bigger – when the last film in the previous trilogy climaxed with dueling pirate ships caught in a mystical vortex, things can only feel slightly miniscule in comparison, no matter the grandly realized visual effects-laden set piece.


"On Stranger Tides" opens in Spain, where a man has been recovered from a fishing net with a journal he claims contains a map to the Fountain of Youth. The British crown gets wind of this discovery and sets its own team out to recover it, led by a powdered-wig-wearing Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, back to teeth-gnashing malevolence after a largely comic role in the previous film). Captain Jack is shanghaied and placed in the brig of none other than Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is both onboard, leading the charge, and a former paramour of the previously ambiguous Captain Jack.

The quest of the three groups of grumpy men (the Spaniards, the Brits led by Barbossa, and the pirates led by Blackbeard) are all in a mad scramble for the Fountain of Youth, and sometimes the film feels like an old timey version of movies like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Except with rum. And very bad wigs. (Actually, come to think of it, maybe those were a part of the earlier movies too.)

As is the case with a movie based on both a beloved theme park attraction and a marginal young adult novel (by Tim Powers), things get somewhat muddled. Most superfluous is a thematic strain of the script in which various characters are concerned with redemption, primarily dramatized by a young clergyman (Sam Clafin) falling in love with a comely mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, shimmery without the addition of visual effects).

It's the mermaids that facilitate the movie's greatest, most pulse-pounding sequence, as they reveal themselves to be seducers of men and, more importantly, Lovecraftian sea beasts with fangs and willowy tails – more "Shadow Over Innsmouth" than "The Little Mermaid." They move stealthily through the water and leap out of the air, tossing out ropes of seaweed and eventually taking down an entire ship of sturdy crewmen, scarier than the burly zombies under the employ (or is it enslavement?) of sorcerer Blackbeard.

What's pleasant about the mermaid sequence, too, it it's just the right touch of supernatural hooey. The problem with the latter films in the original trilogy ("Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End"), was that they were too bogged down with mumbo-jumbo – when you have scorned goddesses, sea creatures that cluck like Bill Nighy, giant squids, and purgatory visualized as a vast sea of pearly crabs – well, the skeletal, cursed bogeymen of the first film seem positively quaint. The emphasis on the otherworldly, which required vast special effects and untold computing power, Depp's flamboyant Captain Jack seems tame in comparison. You couldn't hear his squawking because everything else was so damn loud.

But Depp doesn't seem quite the focus of this one, either. There's nothing wrong with a passive lead character, but it often feels like Captain Jack does little but stand around while other people talk or, occasionally, clash swords. That's not a character, that's set dressing. His outrageousness seems to have been tempered, possibly because of his newfound heterosexuality, but it's odd that they toned down the one special effect that didn't require vast sums of money. Since the number of superfluous subplots had been whittled down, you'd think someone would have let him riff.

Except that this time around, the fleet is under the unwieldy command of Rob Marshall, director of the Academy Award-winning "Chicago" and the barely watchable "Nine." It would have been nice if he had applied his love of elaborate choreography to the battle sequences, similar to the elegant way Joe Wright conducted the action in "Hanna," but instead he's fallen on a different crutch – his tendency to chop up sequences to where they are just bits of this and that, intermittently mixed with a stagey wide shot (and truly, never have such elaborate stages looked so phony).

Marshall's approach to 3D, which the film was shot in, is just as problematic. His general sensibility when giving a sequence depth is to shoot through something – a wooden railing, a windowpane, a large blade of tall grass, loads of clumpy fog – but what this does is just obscure the action, or bring unjust attention to the foreground. It's not 3D if the only thing you're doing is making the audience look around something to see the action. There are a couple of dynamic scenes – the aforementioned mermaid sequence and one where Blackbeard's ship comes to life – but these are few and far between. In the somewhat underrated and exceptionally odd "At World's End," there's a sequence where Tom Hollander is walking through a ship as its exploding in slow motion, splintered wood bouncing off of his pristine uniform, and it has more depth than any of the actual 3D on display here.

"On Stranger Tides" isn't offensively bad, it's not even poor. It's just nothing special. And after a while that "nothing special" feels "exceptionally dull." Johnny Depp mugs (well, come to think of it, so does Geoffrey Rush… And Ian McShane…), Penelope Cruz pouts (while her cleavage heaves), and a bunch of people scramble around tropical locations for reasons only truly discernible to the screenwriters (Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott). As far as a "bottle episode" installment of the series, it's nice to see the characters breathe (even if some of them choke on unneeded heterosexuality) and the supernatural ballyhoo tamed down a bit, but there's still something lacking. If Johnny Depp would have truly been let loose again, then it would have been something really special, capturing that unexpected, a-ha fun of the first movie (while hopefully tampering the convoluted nature of the plot). The film has the feeling of familiarity – been there, sailed that. Deathly to a pirate, but more so to an audience member. For a movie called "On Stranger Tides," it would have benefited from being a whole lot weirder [C+]

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19 Comments

  • bisho | September 25, 2012 10:00 PMReply

    um a big fan of potc and specially 2 and 3 ........a fan of davy jones too and i hoped they could bring him back in 4 but they did even worse, cut off much more characters, it's like harry potter 4 without hagrid...ron hemonie etc..........and the story is a big fail, i mean u can easily predict what's goin on next and where to go.......with much concentration on jack and neglecting the others, also the script was stupid and directing isn't any better.....seriously what the hell were they thinking with a new director in the 3rd one?? he changed the whole theme........the good thing is potc it's back and i love the fact that penelope is there too

  • AUPEE | September 16, 2011 11:13 AMReply

    are u kidding?.....potc is just getting better.......anyone eho thinks different is just kidding themselves.....ride on depp....hopin der'll be the 5th part.....

  • Rebecca | May 24, 2011 1:29 AMReply

    Went and saw it today with my sister. I didn't see it in 3D which was probably for the best seeing as it seems not to have been that good. About the movie it was ok, but with the other 3 movies I was able to remember all of my favorite parts after I watched them. But with this movie it just wasn't there, I got out of the theatre and only remembered a few good moments. Which were the monkey scenes and the mermaid scene. That to me speaks of a poorly scripted movie that could of had alot of potental if the script had been good and if Depp had been let loose.

  • ASWIN | May 23, 2011 2:00 AMReply

    CHILL guys its awesome well done again JACK
    he will never stop entertaining us
    its real fun & depp should get all rewards for it
    its totally jack.....jack....jack.... YO HO..........
    SAVVY??????????????

  • Gill | May 22, 2011 4:47 AMReply

    I just saw Pirates...4 and Googled to see what others thought. We went to see it because the first 3 were such fun and the casts so enjoyable. Our little group aged 2 @ 60ish and 5 @ 20ish all agreed it was boring and hardly any fun at all. The 3D got in the way. The images in the new Rave digital Imax was blury. The best cast interaction was the exchanges between Jack and the monkey - in two brief monents. Everything the critic wrote rings true. Mostly, it was not fun.

  • f | May 21, 2011 10:58 AMReply

    the thing is is that now with the crisis we been getting crisis movies,talk talk talk talk here spectator here is 2000$ special effect that will get you going for another 30 minutes its like mind games with the movie company and director,its like : yeah! come in ! its 3d ! wow superb!!! . Here pay the double the price of a normal ticket,people eat pop corn,people talk and in the middle of the movie you realise that u been jocked,but then in your mind its " its a new hope" when you see a guy yelling in the movie with another 40 000 special effect I DIDNT see the movie i live in the south pacific also im deciding wherever ill buy a pack of cigarettes or pay to watch this ....

  • sarah | May 21, 2011 7:26 AMReply

    People need to chill out and let their imaginations take hold...these movies arent meant to be taken so seriously..They are all amazing!...they have it all...not only are they exciting but funny and adventurous!....i mean its about pirates for god sake..and actual pirate legends!..so ofcourse there is going to be supernatural referances and silly stuff...cuz incase you dont know....davy jones was actually feared by pirates at the time(even though he wasnt real)...and blackbeard took 6 shots and 20 stab wounds to actually die(hence the immortal referances in the movies)...they also actually believed that treasure held curses...etc....so seriously people just sit back relax and have a good time cuz thats what these movies are for! and johnny depp is absolutely amazing as always!!!!!!!

  • Mazyy | May 20, 2011 9:02 AMReply

    Johnny depp gets an Academy Award dis time.Guys like Natalie portman cld get one then johnny depp cld get two

  • Jack | May 20, 2011 8:37 AMReply

    “On Stranger Tides” isn’t offensively bad, it’s not even poor. It’s just nothing special. And after a while that “nothing special” feels “exceptionally dull."

    This translates to me as;

    "This movie is not serious enough and does not provide enough moral question or dramatic tension, so even if it is a decent movie, I must say it sucks because it is not life changing."

    Way to be a hipster.

  • Boog | May 20, 2011 6:53 AMReply

    What is with these "newfound heterosexuality" references? What did I miss in the 3rd one where Sparrow turned gay? Why not just "sexuality"? WTF is this precious writer so bothered about?

  • Limesy | May 19, 2011 11:18 AMReply

    The biggest disappointment about this film for me was the soundtrack. There was a definite lack of original musical material, which is a shame because to me, a lot of the action sequences became almost cliche, simply because I knew where all the pauses and crescendos occurred, making it rather predictable. I absolutely adore Hans Zimmer's music and especially love the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks, so I found it disappointing that I have so little new music to add to my collection. But I guess that I know the soundtrack better than a lot of viewers so not everyone would notice this.
    And as for the movie overall, I still haven't made up my mind how much I like it. I *did* like it, but it might just be because I have been a huge fan of Pirates and Johnny Depp since childhood and just can't help but get excited about it! Although I can see why some people would find it dull.

  • elizabeth | May 18, 2011 3:09 AMReply

    The 'Pirates' movies, whatever the 'critics' think of them, are a phenomenon. And a very lucrative one, for Disney.
    If they are so awful, how come millions worldwide have flocked to cinemas to watch them? How come the dvd's have are so perenially popular? And how come they have such a hugely loyal following, all over the world?
    Come on - these movies are tip-top family entertainment, light, funny and thoroughly enjoyable. Not to mention their glittering star - Johnny Depp's unique genius is the towering draw of these films. He is gorgeous eye candy for the women, and there's loads of swash buckling action for the men - as well as beautiful Penelope Cruz.

    It's sad to hear the moaners grumbling and trying to pull down what is essentially a wonderful piece of light entertainment; as the saying goes, 'lighten up!' and just enjoy it...

  • rhed edler | May 18, 2011 1:49 AMReply

    Pretty nice post about this movie Pirates of the Caribbean 4. I just came across your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really liked reading your posts. Anyway I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you post again soon! Latest movie online

  • JOJO | May 16, 2011 5:49 AMReply

    I don't let critics make my mind up for me. ! Critics think their opinion is the only one! Well i never listen to any of them! Pretty much disagree with most of them. I will be seeing potc4 ! I have enjoyed all of them!

  • Maha | May 13, 2011 12:21 PMReply

    Thanks for the great review! Your writing, even though criticising the points in the movie, seems just, and is constructive criticism, instead of just spewing hate and nastiness like I've seen some well known critics write on this movie. Good job!
    Interestingly enough, some of the points you've made conflict with quite a few things I've read about- as in, you feel Depp should have been let loose, while some feel he should be restrained. You feel he wasn't quite the centre of focus- some felt there was way too much focus on him, sometimes even unneeded.
    Oh well. =)
    Also, I think the point of familiarity is moot. This is the Pirates universe, the characters, settings et all will always feel familiar in whatever number of sequels. I feel it brings a fresher vibe than the rest.
    I'm still going to watch it, and I suspect I'll have a great time doing so. Can't wait!

  • Mr Anonymous | May 13, 2011 5:51 AMReply

    I saw the first one. Hated it.

    Have no intention in the future watching a pirate film. Ever.

    Give me Hook any day of the week!

  • Drew | May 13, 2011 5:12 AMReply

    The problem with the latter "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, which I still do very much enjoy (the third film, in particular, I feel is intoxicatingly strange), isn't that there's too much supernatural bullshit. The problem is that the supernatural bullshit drowns out anything that was special about the first film, namely the nimble comedic performance of Depp.

    And the movie is still too fucking long - over 2 hours of dashing this way and that.

  • Rosie | May 13, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    [" The problem with the latter films in the original trilogy (”Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”), was that they were too bogged down with mumbo-jumbo – when you have scorned goddesses, sea creatures that cluck like Bill Nighy, giant squids, and purgatory visualized as a vast sea of pearly crabs – well, the skeletal, cursed bogeymen of the first film seem positively quaint."]


    I do get tired of POTC fans who believe they always have to bash the second and third films. It's like encountering the STAR WARS fans who always have to bash the Prequel movies. From what I have read about the movie's plot, "On Stranger's Tide" seemed to have as much supernatural elements as the FIRST THREE MOVIES.

  • DeMarco | May 13, 2011 3:15 AMReply

    Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides looks like a vast improvement on the previous films. It is good how they have streamlined the film and reinvented the film series. The previous films were overlong, had too many leads, overloaded with multiple complex storylines and overstuffed with key characters.
    This film is centred on Captain Jack Sparrow only who is the sole protagonist in this film and the film follows him. There appears to be only one storyline which is simple and clear. The supporting cast of Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush are the only other key characters.

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