PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES
During the first hour of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the third sequel in Disney's hugely successful franchise, characters are routinely told to beware of the mermaids - half-woman/half-fish beings who use their comely looks and tranquil siren songs to drag seafaring men to their deaths. Our adventurers take note of the warnings but pay them little mind, and really, why should they? Disney, after all, is the studio that gave us the benign cutie-pies of The Little Mermaid and (through its Touchstone Pictures label) Splash. Just how nasty can these things be?
We eventually find out, and as a result, I'll likely never look at Ariel or Daryl Hannah the same way again.
In order to activate a magical elixir at the Fountain of Youth, the film's pirates must first secure a mermaid's teardrop (don't ask), and plan to obtain one by luring the sea creatures to their rowboat. Big mistake. The mermaids show up, all right - only one to start with, then a few more, then a few dozen more. But after bewitching the sailors with their beauty, these fishy females eventually show their teeth - literally. Gnashing their fangs and shrieking, they bound through the air and knock their unprepared victims into the water, and those who attempt to swim away are no better off; like vicious, aquatic Spider-Men, the mermaids shoot seaweed from their wrists and ensnare the hapless pirates from afar. It's a sharply edited sequence featuring superior visuals, and for the few minutes that it lasts, On Stranger Tides is everything - scary, funny, exciting - you want a Pirates of the Caribbean outing to be. The mermaids kick ass. The rest of the movie just kind of bites it.
There's something hugely depressing about the large-scale mediocrity of On Stranger Tides; enormous amounts of time, energy, and talent have been employed in the service of a production that just freakin' sits there. For all of the series' flaws - and narrative incoherence, in the last two films, has to be at the top of the list - you could hardly accuse director Gore Verbinski's previous Pirates offerings of being dull. But with Rob Marshall taking over the directorial reins, this new film has almost none of the slapstick zing or wildly orchestrated flights of fancy that made Verbinski's efforts engaging, despite their frequent senselessness.
Most everyone assumes that Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is the heart of the franchise, and the sloshed, slurring privateer may very well be the reason that audiences will happily line up for yet another Pirates fix. (At the screening I attended, the first closeup of Sparrow's eyes and heavy eyeliner was enough to get the the crowd giggling.) On Stranger Tides, though, heavily suggests that the linchpin was actually Verbinski. Though the surprise is gone from his performance and he looks vaguely bored throughout, Depp doesn't embarrass himself, and actually manages a laugh here and there; he scores a particularly great one with Sparrow's crestfallen realization that the wooden leg belonging to the nefarious Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is secretly a flask. Yet Depp's occasionally witty contributions are continually impeded by Marshall's slack pacing and unimaginative staging. Watching Sparrow and Barbossa trying to carefully negotiate their steps aboard Ponce de León's ship - which is teetering precariously on the edge of a cliff - you can't help imagining the giddy, acrobatic fun that Verbinski, with his whirling-dervish camera, would've brought to the scene. With Marshall in charge, there's neither peril nor playfulness on hand; it's just one more initially clever, banally executed set piece in a tired sequel all too rife with them.
To take some heat off On Stranger Tides' director, though, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio hardly give Marshall ample opportunities for invention. I do thank them for providing a more straightforward narrative this time around. Unfortunately, though, that narrative - which basically involves teams of scalawags in a Cannonball Run-esque race to the Fountain of Youth - is so straightforward that a number of subplots and debuting supporting characters are required to fill its 135-minute running length, and absolutely none of them is interesting.
Penélope Cruz, appearing uncharacteristically glum, banters and acts mildly untrustworthy as Sparrow's former flame, and Ian McShane bellows and "Arrr!"s as Blackbeard, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey and Sam Claflin enact a chaste romance between a mermaid and a missionary, yet everything they do is cheerless and heavy-spirited. (The expressionless Clafin seems almost designed to make you re-evaluate the limited charms of Orlando Bloom.) Even Keith Richards' token cameo is a drag, and the less said about Richard Griffiths' King George, a caricature as insufferably gross as his Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films, the better. On Stranger Tides is really the worst kind of Hollywood blockbuster - a completely joyless one - and the movie feels especially pointless in a year that's already given us a hilarious, energetic, grotesquerie-laden entertainment in the Pirates vein, and a Gore Verbinski-Johnny Depp collaboration, to boot. It's called Rango.