Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) Review

“Did everyone see that? Because I will not be doing it again.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is pretty much considered the worst of the series, when everyone involved stopped caring. With only a few of the original stars returning and a plot that moved away from what we’d seen so far, many thought it was a needless attempt to squeeze money out of the series. And yeah it probably is, but it’s not half bad.

At the end of the previous film, we saw Captain Jack Sparrow setting off in search of The Fountain of Youth. To the film’s credit, it does carry on with that plot-line and doesn’t just brush it under the rug. We see Jack again as he tries to free first mate Gibbs from a death sentence. Within a few minutes he’s talking to King George II and then running all around London, jumping on carriages and swinging from banners. It’s very Pirates of the Caribbean, which is good because one of the things the series lost for this installment is director Gore Verbinski who’s action, to me, has always been one of the defining elements of the franchise. But luckily it still feels like Pirates which is a relief. And Depp is as good as ever. Some reviewers said he seemed a bit bored at times, which I never really noticed. He was still great and he got quite a few laughs out of us. I suppose the Captain Jack Sparrow act might be getting a bit old for some, he certainly didn’t add anything new to it in this film. In fact his plot is very similar to At World’s End, even with the same choice between his friend or immortality at the end. But it’s comfortable, he is good at it and it’s entertaining to watch.

This is by the far the darkest of the series, not in terms of subject matter but visually. Everything is so dark and gloomy! But oddly it works, especially when the characters are in London on the eve of the industrial revolution. The streets are dirty and grimy and feel real. And the scenes of darkness in other scenes are reminiscent of a horror film, particularly on the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Though this feel throughout the film does make the whole thing feel more grounded and perhaps even cheap, which is odd because this is by far the strangest film in the series (hence the title).

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There are zombies, mermaids and a magic ship in this film. Even after the giant maelstroms and undead pirates of the previous installments, this one is pretty wacky. But they all fit into the world that previous films have created, the mermaids especially are really cool. In one scene the crew is trying to capture one, only to start huge mermaid vs human fight. There are humans being dragged to the depths, and people being pulled from the rocks with seaweed-y whips. It looks awesome. The same can be said for the fight aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Once Blackbeard starts having the mooring on his possessed ship start throwing people around you believe it. What it lacks in emotional weight it makes up for in sheer spectacle. It might not quite be the Verbinski level of action we’re used to, but coming from the guy who directed Chicago it’s really impressive.

For me, what really justifies this fourquel is the characters it introduces. First up with have Penélope Cruz as Angelica, not only a former flame of Captain Jack but the former flame, the one he can’t seem to forget. She adds a much needed jolt of energy to the film, and makes up for the lack of a kickass woman in Elizabeth’s wake. Jack and Angelica’s back and forth and constant sniping dialogue with each other is great and adds some believable history to everyone’s favourite pirate. Also being introduced this time around is a new villain, and after Davy Jones and Beckett this one has to be memorable. Luckily he’s played by Lancashire’s own Ian Mcshane so that was never an issue. McShane plays Blackbeard and from the moment he steps on screen he’s the best part of the film. He’s imposing and you believe it when Jack describes him as “the pirate all pirates fear”. I’ve read reviews that say Blackbeard doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of Davy Jones, because he is simply evil for evil’s sake. It’s true that Blackbeard’s motivations for reaching the fountain aren’t as compelling as Davy Jones in the previous films, but he’s the scariest pirate on the seven seas. If he was any bit less than completely evil I would have been disappointed.

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The old faces don’t disappoint ether. Gibbs gets a bigger role in this, trudging through the forest like scenes from Platoon. Gibbs has always been a bit underused, he’s Jack’s right-hand-man so it’s good to see him get more screen-time (even if Jack doesn’t always leave him in the best positions). The end scene of them walking off together is sweet, and a welcome pause from the constant betrayals. Barbossa is also back, this time sporting a wooden leg and a British Navy wig. Though something isn’t right about this from the get-go so it’s really just a waiting game until he reveals his true intentions. But Geoffrey Rush is as hammy we have come to expect and is a delight to watch. His motivations are very intriguing and nicely bridge the gap between the previous film too.

Is it the weakest of the series? Yeah probably, but there is plenty for fans of the series to enjoy. The actors are great and look like they’re having fun, and the story is entertaining and fantastical. McShane and Cruz and very welcome additions too. It’s missing Verbinski’s direction but it’s not the cash grab it very easily could have been.

Reviewed by Jack

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