Review: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ (it’s the Sparrow and Barbossa show!)

Captain Jack Sparrow sets sail once again, but how does it fare without Gore Verbinski at the rudder?

With no more curses, dead men’s chests, or world endings to speak of, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) continues to dedicate himself to the cause of locating the legendary Fountain of Youth. Unfortunately, an attempt to rescue his old friend Gibbs (Kevin McNally) puts him at odds with the English crown now being advised by a privateer named Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). It seems that the Spanish are keen on finding the fountain first, and worse yet, someone pretending to be Jack Sparrow is recruiting their own crew to find it as well. When an old flame (Penélope Cruz) turns up in the middle of it all, it isn’t long before Jack finds himself unconscious and shanghaied aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, commanded by the pirate that all pirates fear, Blackbeard (Ian McShane).

With the fortune that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has made to date, a fourth film was inevitable. As another chance to visit our favorite characters again and see what they’ve been up to (other than the happy ending of the original three), On Stranger Tides bursts at the seams with plot, almost to the point of collapsing in on its own weight. Ian McShane’s Blackbeard is, sadly, wasted (as is much of that plotline except as a catalyst to put Jack at odds with Cruz’s character), but the remaining focus on Sparrow and Barbossa continues not only the tale of their rivalry but also why (and how well) they ever worked together to begin with.

While fans of the Pirates franchise met Sparrow and Barbossa years after their falling out, the two seemed as though they could never have been anything but rivals. On Stranger Tides challenges that notion, a grand subplot interrupting a perfectly entertaining masterplot (and this is where the problems come in). Depp and Rush are so in tune with their characters at this point that they could probably take a request from the audience and burst into an impromptu scene, but by the time the film ends, the perfect balance between these pirate rivals is struck at last to something resembling an accord, but time will tell.

An issue with all of the Pirates films has been a missing sense of where they actually are at any time, and this film is the worst by far (are they in Cuba? Florida? Another island? Tell us… show us! The Caribbean isn’t that big). Formally introducing the Spanish into the mix gives the series many places it can go. While the main plot is overshadowed by subplot, the production as a whole appears to have been designed both to reboot the franchise without Gore Verbinski and providing new waters to explore. Many of the new characters are welcome additions, including a zombie seer, a kind-hearted clergyman, truly monstrous mermaids, and the Queen Anne’s Revenge herself (or maybe it’s just Blackbeard’s sword…hmm). Until the inevitable part five, here’s wishing both captains fair winds and following seas.

(a three skull recommendation out of four)
3.0 out of four skulls

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