Monday, May 23, 2011

Theme Ride Retread

2011 might be remembered as the year of the Hollywood sequel. In January, it was announced that 27 film sequels were scheduled for release during this year, and many of them not the first continuations of their franchises. While nine titles were the first attempts to continue series such as Pixar's Cars 2 and the live-action The Hangover Part II, many more are even further along film-wise, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 being the eighth addition to the series. As for fourth-film sequels, 2011 will have featured the greatest number of franchises that have lasted until the fourth release, including additions to the Mission: Impossible, Scream and Spy Kids sagas. For most of these releases, it is a sign from the powers that be that they can't (or won't) take chances when it comes to business as usual, so the sequel seems the way to go for guaranteed positive business. Most notable in that vein may be Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the latest offering from the series based on the Disney park theme ride of the same name. When the original Pirates was released back in 2003, it made a legitimate blockbuster star out of Johnny Depp and his legendary character of Captain Jack Sparrow, and the film's financial success guaranteed that there would be much more to come. The first two sequels, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, were disappointing to many critics and fans, but still sold out theaters and made gobs of dough for their efforts. Hence this attempt to rejuvenate the franchise with new characters, a new director (Rob Marshall), and otherwise the same old crew of miscreants, scallywags and swashbucklers appearing for your hard-earned dollar. For the last few months, I was convinced that this newest addition (supposedly the first of a new trilogy) would be either the best or the worst the series had to offer. By the time the final credits rolled, I was somewhat surprised by the results.

And THAT'S where the rum has gone!
Some time after the events of At World's End, Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) finds himself in London. There, he searches for an impostor who is hiring a crew under his own name, supposedly on the hunt for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Discovering the impostors, Sparrow finds himself an important cog in a race to the location of the fountain, as three major forces move in for the prey: the powerful Spanish Armada, a British privateer ship captained by none other than Sparrow's rival Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and a pirate ship captained by one of the most prolific legends of all time, Blackbeard himself (Ian McShane) and his daughter and Jack's former lover Angelica (Penelope Cruz).

"Carriage Surfing" was all the rage in London back then. Go ahead, put that in your term paper.
For one, I was quite happy for the change of characters in On Stranger Tides. While Sparrow and Barbossa are back, I was relieved when I learned that Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom would not be returning as fated lovers Elizabeth and William, since their characters had run the course (and yes, I'm aware that the actors opted out for that same reason, you don't need to tell me). Instead, Marshall's plan implemented a more original route than his predecessor Gore Verbinski, who became so engrossed in the universe he had created he forgot that he was supposed to be making entertainment. Marshall's fresh eyes (as well as inspiration from Tim Powers' classic pirate novel On Stranger Tides) help to almost reboot the series while still remaining faithful to the original material. Intact is Jack's atypical sense of wit and logic, Jerry Bruckheimer's action-oriented strand of narrative, and the twisted bits of pirate lore and history that engulf the series's background. Sure, you could see a much more historically-accurate portrayal of life at sea in 2003's underrated Master and Commander, but that's never really been what Pirates was about. While it might pick and jab at historical iconography, the original trilogy reveled in silliness and good humor, while never backing away from the real and imaginary dangers of the world at that time. It reminds me so much of another swashbuckling adventure series, the Monkey Island games for the PC, of which the films have often been implied or accused of having copied.

Iam McShane warns Depp of the dangers of typecasting.
It's really a shame then that a film with so many things I love felt so disjointed. On Stranger Tides feels almost like a second cousin to its grandiose forebears, as even the effects-heavy bits don't stand up in scale to even those of the lesser Pirates sequels. Of course, that is no moon; one of the original trilogy's problems was Bruckheimer's overly-leaden special effects were merely cover for inane plots and plain silliness that didn't benefit the film at all. By scaling down the SFX here (even while incorporating the unnecessary 3D), the story is forced out into the open, allowing the screenwriters to flesh it out a bit more to modern standards. It isn't enough; the plot is very linear and uncompromising, with promising sub-stories either jarringly off the track or ignored altogether. While some genius exists (for instance seeing Jack's brain working out an escape plan in an early scene) the vast majority of the film is merely okay, generic pirate stories masquerading as an equal to The Iliad or The Odyssey.

In other news, Geoffrey Rush tries on a new hat!
Jack Sparrow himself is also dangerously overexposed as a character; while Depp never makes any obvious miscues, Sparrow doesn't have nearly as much of the strong support needed to thrive as a leading star. While I don't miss Will and Elizabeth, I do miss the way their normalized manners grounded Sparrow as a character, not allowing himself to get too carried away; here, he's a free bird, and this bird you cannot change. Depp still does an amazing job delving into the role of Jack Sparrow, I just wish he could have had someone to play off him better. That job COULD have belonged to Penelope Cruz, but despite the amazing chemistry that develops between Depp's deranged charmer and Cruz's sharp-tongued schemer, they simply don't spend enough time together to make it fulfilling. Worse, Angelica transforms from bad-ass femme fatale  to devoted daddy's girl to vengeful psychotic, much to the chagrin of The Opinioness, I'm sure. Ian McShane is the best, no surprise to any who have witnessed his starring turn on HBO's Deadwood. The veteran actor perfectly takes over from previous villains Rush and Bill Nighy emulating one of history's most notorious pirate lords. Edward "Blackbeard" Teach has a reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty (which history may dispute but hey, it makes a good story) and McShane brings it out brilliantly. His voice also emulates that of Monkey Island's Ghost Pirate LeChuck, so he's got that going for him too (okay, no more M.I. asides, I assure you). Geoffrey Rush returns once more, but despite his not-inconsiderable talent, the character of the pirate Barbossa has pretty much run its course, and should have been retired after At World's End. Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey have little to do, and their story is sadly off-kilter with the rest of the film. Claflin plays a missionary who Angelica obtains to try and save her father's soul, while Berges-Frisbey is a mermaid who the crew needs to find the Fountain of Youth. Like Will and Elizabeth, the two have a romance that defies expectations, but because the characters aren't very well developed and the side-plot all but ignored by the script until it matters, both are relegated to the largely-silent background.

"And just like that... the rum was gone again."
I suppose expecting that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides could top Curse of the Black Pearl for top Pirates movie might have been a little ambitious. Curse was a wonderful fantasy story in a setting that hadn't seen any film popularity in years, and what it succeeded in was more than could be hoped for in ANY sequel. Still, On Stranger Tides does what only a Pirates movie can do best: disarm you with witty humor before the epic sword fight or sea battle keeps you on the edge of your seat. As a franchise film, it's better than either of Verbinski's attempts, and as a sequel it's better than Scream 4 but not as good as Fast Five. Far from masterful but still a lot of fun, On Stranger Tides is one good director and one great screenplay away from rekindling the magic that was the franchise's origins.

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