Despite the ponderous spectacles that were Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, I was looking forward to my fourth date with Jack Sparrow at the cineplex. And I don't think I'm alone. I would wager that many moviegoers who turn out for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will not do so because their imaginations are so stirred by nautical adventures, but to see Johnny Depp's Captain Jack. And so they will only be mildly disappointed in this lackluster effort at blockbuster moviemaking.

Rare is the character who can engender devotion while helming such a tedious franchise. The Pirates series has failed to generate a satisfying and coherent plot since its debut installment in 2003. And yet, Jack Sparrow remains one of the wittiest and most endearing antiheroes to put on eyeliner and swish across the deck of a schooner. If Pirates 4 had more swishing and less swashbuckling, it would have made for a more enjoyable movie. And this comes from someone who loves adrenaline-pumping chase scenes and creative spectacles. But I knew this two-hour cruise was in trouble when I found myself resisting the urge to check my email halfway through Jack's first big escape. Much like Dame Judi Dench exclaimed in her delicious cameo, I found myself thinking, Is that all?

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow

This time around, Jack gets himself mixed up in a race to find the Fountain of Youth. Tricked and conscripted by a jilted lover Angelica (Penelope Cruz), Jack is forced to guide the dreaded pirate Blackbeard's ship and crew to the fountain. That Blackbeard (Ian McShane) is Angelica's father and it is prophesied he will soon die explains much of her desire to find the fountain. The other two teams racing to the site—the British and the Spanish—are motivated by religion, sort of. What the entirely undeveloped Spanish crew wants with the promising fountain when it starts the race is unclear. But the Protestant British king is loathe to let the Catholic Spaniards achieve immortality, so he gives chase.

Or rather, the king commissions Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to give chase. The former villain has become a privateer and is working for the crown, powdered wig and all, looking about as menacing as an elderly poodle. This time, it's Blackbeard who inspires the fear and trembling, keeping his crew in line from the helm of a bewitched ship called the Queen Anne's Revenge, ruling with a potent mixture of black magic and rumor. (Anyone who has seen McShane in the HBO series Deadwood will immediately cower.) Whether or not Blackbeard's soul can possibly be saved serves as a kind of thought experiment throughout the film, with Philip (Sam Clafin) a young, handsome missionary arguing yes and Blackbeard arguing no with evil deeds to back up his words.

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Penelope Cruz as Angelica

Penelope Cruz as Angelica

The religious component to the movie is like much else: surprisingly boring. There is a lot of moralizing, but little of substance to suggest why any given perspective might be better than the other. Why is it possible that Blackbeard's soul can be saved, Philip? Well, apparently it's because the missionary believes in compassion and forgiveness. Earnest speechifying and paint-by-the-numbers hijinks can be entertaining in their turn, but they're certainly not movie magic.

Well, Disney's 3-D effects create a little magic. At the screening I attended, kids and adults oohed and aahed for the first several minutes as all manner of objects came whizzing out from the screen. A Boston Globe critic kept a list of all the things that essentially get thrown at your head in the movie: "a wagonful of flaming coals, rolling barrels, spurting water, many swords, a voodoo doll in the shape of Johnny Depp, a human being in the shape of Johnny Depp." That he made the list to pass the time suggests the bigger problem.

Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa

Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa

In lieu of any big Kraken-like monster, mermaids add intrigue and emotion. A mermaid's tear is needed to catalyze the power of the Fountain of Youth, and so a trap is laid en route. In this telling, the mermaids are sirens that turn into vicious, vampire-like creatures. But whether this is their nature or a result of being brutally hunted is unclear. (I wondered if the director got inspiration for his staging of the big battle and capture scene from 2009's The Cove, a documentary about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan.) The capture of the beautiful mermaid Syrena (Astrid Bergés-Frisbey) gives our young missionary a love interest—though their mutual attraction is more inevitable than inspired.

As Angelica, Cruz is a good sparring partner—with words and swords—for Jack. Their chemistry is palpable, but it's not enough to make up for an adventure that seems less and less adventurous as the minutes go by. The makers of On Stranger Tides have done well in reeling in some of the more outlandish digitized excesses of the two previous sequels. But they seem to have forgotten to keep a few tricks hidden up their sleeves. As it is, the movie plods, rather than sails

Ian McShane as Blackbeard

Ian McShane as Blackbeard

You could be forgiven for forgetting by the end of this movie that pirates are mostly seafaring creatures. Much of the action takes place on land, in either London or the tropical island on which the fountain is located. If only the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise itself could have found the moviemaking equivalent of that fountain.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Jack and Scrum try to free Philip during an attempted mutiny on Blackbeard's ship. Scrum says, "You're either with us or against us." Philip responds with "I'm neither with you nor against you." Scrum asks Jack, "Is that possible?" and Jack responds, "He's religious. I think it's required." Discuss this exchange. Do you agree with Jack's assessment of the situation?
  2. Do you think Blackbeard really loved Angelica? Why or why not?
  3. Philip seemed to go back and forth about whether or not Blackbeard's soul could be saved. What did you think?
  4. Put yourself at the Fountain of Youth when the Spanish, British, and pirates show up. Which group would you want to be a part of? Which group do you think had the right or best intentions?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is rated PG-13 for intense scenes of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo. With a handful of edits, I think it could have been a PG movie. But it strays across the PG-13 line with sexual innuendo, a few gratuitous shots of buxom women, and violence that often veers into the gross at just the last moment.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(21 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for intense scenes of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo)
Directed By
Rob Marshall
Run Time
2 hours 16 minutes
Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane
Theatre Release
May 20, 2011 by Walt Disney Pictures
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