The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
The year is 1914. Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is a lowly museum cartographer and linguistics expert who knows the whereabouts of Atlantis. He isn't taken seriously however until an eccentric billionaire (voiced by Fraiser's John Mahoney) funds an expedition based on Milo's late grandfather's journal about the lost city. Milo joins a motley group of mercenaries led by Commander Rourke (voiced by James Garner) on a dangerous trip through the ocean where they discover a thriving civilization ruled by the King (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) and his beautiful warrior daughter Princess Kida (voiced by Cree Summer). It's Atlantis and it's been kept alive by a crystal energy hidden deep within the city which thrills Commander Rourke--his evil plan is to steal the crystals. Now it's up to Milo and the others to save the city from certain doom.
Once again Disney has gathered a talented cast to lend their voices to the characters. Fox easily handles the hapless hero Milo and the animators capture Fox's essence especially in Milo's oh-so-familiar hand gestures. Garner's fairly menacing vocal quality in the evil Commander Rourke is equaled only by the majesty of Nimoy's Atlantean King. However it's the team of explorers each with their own special abilities that really make Atlantis fun. There's demolition expert Vinny voiced in a monotone by the hilarious Don Novello; creepy geologist Mole voiced by Corey Burton in a combination of French and Peter Lorre-ish speak; and Cookie the expedition's lard-lovin' cook voiced by the late Jim Varney. Together they represent the collective "sidekick character" Disney films love but this time it's done with a surprising and delightful twist.
The creators of Atlantis decided try a different approach to the Disney animated formula. Instead of the usual hero-must-find-his/her-way-in-the-world-and-get-the-girl/boy directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale went for the pure adrenaline of an action-adventure story paying tribute to the great Disney adventure movies of the '50s. Also conspicuously absent are the songs so common in recent Disney films. Some die-hard Disney fans may not like that but it's actually a refreshing change of pace. The one thing however that detracts from the film slightly is its look. The animators were going for a particular style--merging computer-generated imagery with traditional animation and giving the film a flat dark comic-book look. This works well for some scenes but when the audience gets to Atlantis that lush Disney look we've seen in films like Tarzan and The Lion King needed to be there.