Look, is it any surprise to hear that PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES is a monumental failure? The PIRATES franchise has been a financial boon for Disney (one which they are currently planning to recreate with their Haunted Mansion attraction) and the critical appeal of the first film has largely propelled the box office success of the second and third films. That may be great news to Disney executives, but unfortunately, it also means anyone with discerning taste is forced to stare at endless billboards proclaiming the next adventure of Captain Jack Sparrow. Like flies attracted to a light trap, audiences were so enamored by the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN that they continued to flock over to see the 2nd, 3rd, and now 4th installments in the hopes that the magic of the 1st film or some semblance of it would be recreated. It didn’t and it still doesn’t with this latest adventure.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back, but this time without Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Being in the same predicament as he was in the first film, Sparrow is once again a captain without a ship. Sparrow’s ship, the Black Pearl, was helmed by another pirate, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), but it was apparently sunk by the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and now Sparrow is without his beloved ship. As he searches for a new crew and a new ship, Sparrow learns that someone is masquerading as him in order to get his/her own boat and crew. Sparrow goes in search of this identity thief and discovers that the imposter is his former lover, Angelica (Penelope Cruz). Angelica is in cahoots with Blackbeard and together they are planning to set sail in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth. Through a series of circumstances, Sparrow ends up on Blackbeard’s crew to find the fountain. Time, however, is limited because Barbossa, now in the service of England’s crown, as well as the Spaniards are out to find the fountain.

Now I have to admit that I was never a fan of any of the PIRATES movies. I respected the first film and thought it was a passable effort that was helped in large part by Johnny Depp’s performance. However, I never saw the appeal that everyone else did with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. As for the 2nd and 3rd films, I surprised even myself when I enjoyed them more than the first movie. They weren’t great or even good films by any means. They perfectly represented the overwrought, assault-all-senses nature of summer popcorn movies and by going into them with that expectation, I was able to enjoy them more. At the same time, I was very much over the whole PIRATES franchise and I had no desire to revisit these characters again. But I did and I even paid extra money to see it in 3D (not by choice). Now the Fountain of Youth seems like an obvious premise for a pirate storyline. The problem is that no one apparently knew what to do with this idea. Unlike the past PIRATE films, here I really felt like no one even cared to put any effort into crafting a good adventure story. ON STRANGER TIDES is a paint-by-numbers exercise that the filmmakers (writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott; producer Jerry Bruckheimer; and director Rob Marshall) completed in their sleep. The sole motivation behind making this movie was money, pure and simple. The filmmakers knew that all they needed for a financially successful formula was to merely bring all the actors back, dress them up in pirate costumes, and dazzle the audience with a few CG-laden action sequences. Nothing in this film demonstrates or even hints that the filmmakers intended to break new ground or make something worth remembering.

The biggest problem I had with the plot of ON STRANGER TIDES is with how carelessly the story is executed. If you’re going to set up a chase between the Spaniards, Blackbeard, and Barbossa, then it would probably be good to convey to the audience some sense of time running out and to show the neck-at-neck struggle between the participants to reach the Fountain of Youth. For example, we only see the Spaniards at the beginning of the movie and the very end when they appear out of nowhere. We are never shown how close the Spaniards are to reaching the fountain or what a threat they pose to the others by getting to the fountain first.

As for the Fountain of Youth itself, the rules required to attain eternal life are convoluted and to put it bluntly, pretty stupid. From what I could understand, you need two silver chalices, both of which must be filled with water, but one of them must also contain the teardrop of a mermaid. The person who drinks the cup without the tear will sacrifice himself to the fountain while the person who drinks the cup with the teardrop will never age again. I probably got that wrong, but its something along those lines and besides, it really doesn’t matter for the purposes of getting the story.

Instead of having Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley (both of whom wisely declined to return for the 4th film), ON STRANGER TIDES contains two romantic subplots. The first is the one between Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz. By now, Depp is able to perform his role in his sleep and half the time, it looks that way too. Lacking is the energy, humor, and spark that animated Jack Sparrow from the first film. As for Penelope Cruz, she comes off as a crazy woman who goes back and forth between showing real affection and care for Sparrow and hating him. With both characters drawn and performed so weakly, any hint of romance or chemistry between them is shot. The second romantic subplot is a bit more interesting, but its equally flawed for different reasons. This romance involves a Christian missionary who is captured by Blackbeard and who falls in love with a mermaid. Its an interesting pairing of characters, but little is done with developing the romance beyond a cheesy surface romance and neither actor playing the characters possesses sufficient acting skills to invest us in the characters or their situation.

On a sidenote, there is a part in the movie that bothered the hell out of me, but I need to warn you of SPOILERS AHEAD because it gives the ending away. In the scene, Jack Sparrow manages to gather up the few remaining drops from the now destroyed Fountain of Youth in order to save the life of Angelica, who has been cut by a poisoned sword’s blade. In the meantime, the missionary is also seen dying as he was cut during a battle. Instead of saving the missionary, who has displayed compassion toward everyone, even Blackbeard, Jack Sparrow decides to save Angelica, who has betrayed Sparrow time and time again and who bears no compassion or sympathy for him. It made Sparrow into an unlikeable character in my eyes and I thought it was poor character judgment on the part of the filmmakers.

I read that ON STRANGER TIDES had a smaller budget than AT WORLD’S END. The latter had a budget of $200 million whereas this latest installment “only” had a budget of $150 million!! I point this out because the production quality of this movie is remarkably lower than what we were treated to in the 2nd and 3rd films. I’m not excusing Rob Marshall’s lackluster direction because $150 million is a massive amount of money with which a more able director can put out something that is visually stunning (i.e. DISTRICT 9). For one, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the jungle scenes plainly appear like they were shot inside a studio set (one that would be called Pinewoods Studio in England). The plants look shiny and fake and the backdrop is always shrouded in mist to probably screen off the studio’s walls. Also, for an adventure movie, there isn’t a whole lot of adventure going on in this movie. The opening contains a chase through the streets of London that we already saw in one of the previous PIRATES movies and which was done a lot better than this one. There is a strange treetop action sequence that looked ridiculous (and that reminded me of Shia LaBeouf jumping through trees with monkeys in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL), there is a somewhat cool scene in which pirates try to capture mermaids, and there are NO pirate ship battles! When our characters finally reach the Fountain of Youth, it’s the most disappointing sight you will ever lay your eyes on. Here I was waiting to see something spectacular and all we get is this strange rock with a hole in it and drips of water coming from it. Say whatever you will about PIRATES 2 and 3, but you can at least admit that Gore Verbinski, the director of the original trilogy, had an ambitious vision that came off well onscreen. I really cannot understand why Disney decided to hire Rob Marshall (CHICAGO, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, and NINE), who has never directed an action movie.

If you decide to not see ON STRANGER TIDES, let me assure you that you will not be missing anything. If you do decide to see this, avoid paying the extra money to see it in 3D. Apart from a few sword thrusts at the screen, there is nothing 3D about this movie.

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