By Richard von Busack
The rather beautiful posters show Captain Jack Sparrow firing his flintlocks in both directions. That says it all. He is completely aimless here. He is the emblem of a franchise where everything gets lost in the shuffle. Escaping the gallows in London, Sparrow is shanghaied by the pirate and voodoo master Blackbeard (Ian McShane) who seeks the Fountain of Youth. A prophecy has it that Blackbeard will die soon if he doesn’t get to its waters.
Blackbeard’s ship is a floating ruin, with torn sails the color of dried blood. Aboard it, Jack Sparrow aims to get the stolen Black Pearl back. But he doesn’t want his ship that badly; we can’t feel the desire. Sparrow also doesn’t seem as beguilingly drunk as he once did. (I think someone has been tampering with Sparrow’s character; someone high up in Disney has been writing notes. And there’s more evidence of this, as I’ll describe presently.) Sparrow is always escaping from something, or shirking a duty. It doesn’t help that for a time his passivity is controlled by Blackbeard’s voodoo doll.
Maybe the model for Depp’s Sparrow is the same model for so many actors doing cartoony things: Bugs Bunny. Generally speaking, Bugs was always acted upon before he acted. But if Bugs was passive, he also had a James Cagney streak: once he was set into action, he was unstoppable. Here Sparrow gets pushed toward action one too many times.
I would love to hear what the filmmakers—particularly director Rob Marshall, temporarily off the musical beat—think the purpose of Sparrow is in these movies. Sparrow flits through them, armed with the magic compass that leads to his heart’s desire. (It’s like he needs a gadget to find out what he wants.)
By the time of this fourth film, Jack seems to be what was once known as “fifth business.” Novelist Robertson Davies’ definition of the term: “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style.”
In this scattered, hurried and yet static tale, even the wonderful Fountain itself doesn’t lure him much; it turns out to be a drippy thing in a stone donut, like someone’s Zen garden. Moreover the fountain requires human sacrifice to work: a dismal way to look at the fable, though no one seems seriously dismayed. (When he learns it needs blood, Sparrow goes deadpan, if well spoken: “I find my appetite for the fountain diminished.”)
To use the fountain, one needs the forced help of mermaids. So a school of them are treated essentially like the tunas got treated in Stromboli. (There are too many film references to count in this one, including the finale pilfered from The Court Jester. But no one expected this film to refer to The Cove.) When challenged, the mermaids sprout vampire fangs; it’s another seriously unpleasant take on the legend.
POTCC: On Stranger Tides has a pleasurable opening half-hour, however, beginning with a Henry Fielding touch. Jack Sparrow is in the courtroom, filled with rank and muddy specimens of the London mob. He escapes over the top of a traffic jam of coaches (the computer generating and sets of 1700s London go off nicely and deeply, in the most successful 3D in the film). At one point, Sparrow rides two carriages at once. It’s a stunt done similarly with horses in The Mask of Zorro, but it’s nice to see reprised.
A famous elderly actress gets a cameo during this escape; she’s a welcome sight, but she turns out to be part of the weird miasma of misogyny that penetrates On Stranger Tides like a fog. She’s disappointed not to be ravished by a pirate—a joke one hadn’t expected to see again in our lifetimes.
Finally, when Jack is scooped up and taken to a palace, the true star of these movies materializes. As befits a man who came back from the dead, Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa is looking much crustier. He has a huge wooden leg and his cheeks are scarified with brandy. Everyone who comments that the Pirates movies ought to be more like S. Clay Wilson cartoons will be cheered by the sight of Rush.
Barbossa has come up in the world since the last film; he’s now a privateer licensed by King George. His majesty is played by the great Richard Griffiths, richly obese and simpering as his many royal titles are read aloud. (He’s a Cruikshank cartoon come to life.)
The former pirate has got some courtly ambition. Like Sparrow, he flounces and tries at times to affect a well-born lisp (the eyes show a little panic; he fears he isn’t sounding swank enough). The absolute highlight of this movie is a moment of Barbossa trying to eat with a fork, a utensil that slips every which way in his grasp.
Rush always makes the dialogue sound better. “The revenge is mine!” may not be much of a line, even when it’s used as a pun. Yet Rush makes it ring. Inevitably, Marshall rations this actor, demonstrating the ineptness seen everywhere in the film.
What develops, then, is a three-way race to the fountain. Barbossa captains a navy ship, and Blackbeard is on his way with Sparrow and Angelica (Penélope Cruz). There’s also a flotilla from the Spanish Navy; they’re insufficiently developed as the ancient enemy they we expect them to be in pirate movies. (This may have been a politeness to the Madrid-born Cruz.)
Angelica bears the name of an actress who would have made a wonderful lady pirate, and the cutlass scar on her cheek just makes her prettier. You might expect to see her leading the way somewhere or spitting fire at something. Don’t let the posters fool you. Cruz’s Angelica isn’t an Anne Bonney or a Mary Read. Rather, she’s Blackbeard’s dutiful daughter, with daddy issues. She has a past with Jack, but not much of a present. They’re supposed to pretend not to be interested in each other. The disinterest seems real. A snatched kiss during a tedious sword fight in a tavern warehouse honors the children in the audience, who are convinced that kissing is disgusting.
Since Jack is no romantic lead (and why not? If he were a lover it might develop his character) there are younger actors to take care of that side of the saga. A poor captured mermaid, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), is lugged through the jungle in a glass aquarium. Ministering to her is the religious young Philip (Sam Claflin), a religious captive of Blackbeard’s.
Here comes the studio skullduggery I was mentioning earlier. You’ll suspect Walden Media had a hand in this film when you see the number of debates that come up regarding the saving of Blackbeard’s soul. The evil pirate taunts the holy man as if he were Satan. He’s meant to look like the devil, and he even seems to have been powdered with tandoori-colored makeup. McShane is in fine voice, of course, but he has nothing tastily evil to say, except these lines that here, like everywhere in the script, sound like bad Internet fan fiction.
With regularly scheduled monotony, Philip does the Christian sacrificial thing, turning the other cheek, wielding his Bible as he pleads for better treatment for the mermaid. It seems like a Pirates of the Caribbean film should avoid being like The Chronicles of Narnia. The moral of the story (if you want eternal life, hint, hint) opens like a trap door under the viewers.
Because of the 3D, there are jumpy moments of sword thrusts coming out of the screen; there’s also not much speed to the editing of this film, which seems alternately becalmed and landlocked. Combine the 3D with CGI and you get wan color you can see in 3 dimensions.