Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides – a review

Despite the world not ending this weekend, I did enjoy my own private moment of rapture. It came in the form of an unsuspecting noblewoman, a passenger in a coach-and-two, briefly hijacked by Jack Sparrow – pardon me: Captain Jack Sparrow. The lady in question, first shocked, then seduced, disappointed and finally indignant, was none other than the brilliant Dame Judi Dench, who can make her indelible mark on a film irrespective of however brief her screen time may be. The scene, which can’t have been longer than a minute, was the highlight of the entire Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides.

As with the other movies in the franchise, On Stranger Tides (D. Rob Marshall, 2011) is a convoluted journey through various twists and turns, some funny, others annoying, most all of them rather overtly contrived.

[spoiler alert]

The movie’s prologue shows a devoutly catholic, yet otherwise unidentified Spanish nobleman (Óscar Jaeneda) finding out that the fountain of youth really exists, and setting out to find it.
As the film itself kicks off, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back in London, trying to spring Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from jail and save him from certain death at the end of a rope. He succeeds, naturally, but soon after they are both caught again. It turns out Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has turned from pirating to privateering – a difference in terminology only – working to find King George (Richard Griffiths) the fountain of youth and he has convinced his King that Jack has the map required for the expedition. Jack, however, makes it clear he is not interested in this particular venture, and makes his escape, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
Soon after, he once again finds himself in harm’s way in a pub, confronting his mirror image who in fact proves to be an old girlfriend, one Angelica (Penélope Cruz), posing as the famous Captain Jack Sparrow in order to procure a crew for her ship. The King’s men, still hunting Jack after his escape, find him there and corral the two in the back room. Jack again escapes, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers. Not for long however, since devious little Angelica manages to subdue Jack shortly after.
He now finds himself on Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a magical ship remotely operated by an equally magical sword (which, in all honesty, really negates the need for a crew). Blackbeard (Ian McShane) for reasons of his own is also looking for the fountain of youth.
And so, three different parties set out to look for the fountain, and all three of them are apparently aware of the ritual involved in making the water from it work for them. A pair of silver chalices is required – quickly and cleverly procured by the Spanish contingent – the tear of a mermaid, which Blackbeard manages to obtain, and apparently the fountain will test the user when the time comes to use its powers, evidence of which never becomes clear at any point.
Sparrow, by now conscripted into Blackbeard’s service, finds out that his former girlfriend also happens to be Blackbeard’s daughter; awkward, that. Jack finds himself doing Blackbeard’s dirty work, helping to catch the previously mentioned mermaid and stealing back the chalices from the Spanish, which adventure once again teams him with Barbossa. They are both caught, naturally, but Jack once again escapes, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
Of course, the end of the film finds everyone at the fountain of youth, which, it turns out, the Spanish merely wanted to destroy as it is sacrilegious since only God can grant life. There is a fight between Angelica and one of her crew members, and Jack, over the mermaid’s tear. Jack manages to get hold of the tear, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
In the end, all but one walk away from this adventure and everyone goes their separate ways.
Oh yes, there’s an easter egg at the very end of it all.

In addition to all the above, there are various subplots: the romance between a missionary, Philip (Sam Claflin), who has for some reason been brought aboard Blackbeard’s ship and the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who ends up shedding a tear for the cause; Barbossa seeking revenge on Blackbeard for a lost leg; Captain Jack Sparrow seeking revenge on Barbossa for the lost Black Pearl and wanting to reclaim his ship from the deep once he finds out that he can; Gibbs, uhm, being there.

But there are a few very enjoyable moments in the movie too. Besides Dame Judi Dench’s cameo, there is Gemma Ward giving a fine rendition of “My jolly sailor bold” in her performance as mermaid no. 1 (apparently called Tamara).

If the plot I outlined just now sounds confusing and convoluted, that’s because it is. If Captain Jack Sparrow’s escapes sound repetitive, that’s because they are. There is no denying that all the actors involved deliver a solid performance, but the very considerable talents of Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane, to name but a few, are wasted here simply because they have very little to work with.

While I was watching the movie, which never managed to engage me enough to stop me thinking about other things and have me focus on the action, I began wondering what it is about the Pirates of the Caribbean that makes them fall just short of being fun. At best, the installments are amusing. As the plot meandered and meandered, I finally managed to put my finger on the problem: Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides should have been a video game. It feels like a video game, it looks like a video game, and the story is suited to a video game, much more so than a 2-hour plus movie. Every scene exists pretty much entirely to allow Jack Sparrow to do what Jack Sparrow does. That in itself would be fine, if Captain Jack Sparrow was an interesting enough character to carry an entire franchise. He is not, though Johnny Depp, who is a perfect Jack Sparrow as the Captain is, has managed to endow him with iconic status somehow. But there is nothing that lifts Jack even an inch above amusing, and that’s a shame, since – for me at least – that more or less negates the need for future installments. If they really insist on continuing the Jack Sparrow saga, perhaps a children’s series on the Disney Channel would be an option?