May 24, 2011
by Sean O. Murphy
“Ahoy! Avast now! Prepare to be boarded!” shouted a chubby boy dressed in his too small pajama bottoms snuggly high-watered around the knees and a three cornered hat picked up at some Colonial battle field gift shop with a hand-drawn Jolly Rogers crossbones on the side. He had a wooden sword in one hand and a crayon scribbled map in the other. He hung precariously by an elbow from the corner of his bunk bed above the sea of carpet below.
On his black and white television across the room was the 1950’s Treasure Island. On another night it would have been Black Swan (1942 not the unrelated 2011 film) or something with Errol Flynn like Sea Hawk or Captain Blood. He might have been found imitating “Sinbad the Sailor” fighting some Ray Harryhausen invention like a skeletal army advancing across the front room.
That boy would have really enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. In the interest of full disclosure and for those who haven’t guessed, that boy was a younger version of your movie critic.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the fourth installment in a franchise originally inspired by of all things a Disney theme park ride and with each film of the first three a shadow of the last. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl reignited a faded interest in the pirate hero and despite two less worthy sequels remains an exceptional entry in an all but dead genre of movie. I can honestly say that my hopes were not high for this fourth installment. I can’t name more than a handful of series that were good beyond a trilogy. I was surprised to be offered such a fun time at the movies.
This is where I would offer a synopsis but fans of this franchise know what to expect by now; our addled yet somehow dashing hero, Captain Jack Sparrow sways with swagger, crossing swords and sides, leaping from heights ,swinging from ropes and all with his own unique style that makes this probably Johnny Depp’s most memorable role.
Captain Barbosa goes privateer and plots revenge as Geoffrey Rush chews scenery the way I chew a Five Guys burger. Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley are missing from this installment but were not really missed with the addition of several new characters. Ian McShane plays Blackbeard, “the pirate that all other pirates fear” and rightfully so. Penelope Cruz plays Angelica, a fiery female first mate that matches Sparrow blow for blow at blades or verbal repartee and may be the daughter of Blackbeard. Then there is Philip, the faithful missionary played by Sam Claffin and his love interest, a mermaid named Syrena played by Astrid Berges-Frisby.
The performances are playful and full of bluster especially from our pirate captains and the alluring first mate. Like most pirate movies, this is a treasure hunt with the MacGuffin this time around being the fountain of youth. The plot is fine if you don’t think about it too hard and are willing to accept that much of the story is nonsensical, historically inaccurate, and with a unique geography that does not fully match with reality.
The movie winks at so many other films and not just from this genre; this is not at all a complete list but I saw references to The Princess Bride, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, I Walked with a Zombie, and a half-remembered old Star Trek episode among other subtle sources. There is just so much for a fan of fantastical adventure movies to love with black magic, pirate ships with blood soaked sails, mermaids, zombies and exotic locales full of beauty and mystery. The little boy in me watched while reliving so many afternoon games of imaginary sea battles but none with as rousing a score as Hans Zimmer offered to this movie.
I admit there will be many detractors of this film especially those whose jobs are to be critical of film (and they will have valid points) but they will be forgetting the fun of playing pirate and letting themselves enjoy what I call a “Sunday Afternoon” movie. These are the sort of films I watched with my dad on Sunday afternoon matinees when we didn’t need to be anywhere or do anything. It was a chance to let ourselves give way to action and adventure, a sort of junk food in our culture consumption. That may be all that this film is, after all, but it does it well.
Let’s just say my swash is thoroughly buckled.