Cannes 2011 Review: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

rating: 1

With a change of director (the talented Gore Verbinski replaced by the paint-by-numbers safe but dull Rob Marshall), a heavy talent culling (the originals leads Keira Knightley & Orlando Bloom long ago set sail on different waters, as did the more interesting supporting characters) and a very simple but fun young adult story by Tim Powers grounding it - Disney clearly set out their fourth entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean series to be flying the flag of a new direction for the creatively sinking franchise. Setting a new course from here on in for however long it is they can get away with looting your money. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and screenwriters Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, the latter duo who must surely be sick to their back teeth writing zany things for these characters to do, have removed the heavy mythology of the original series and much of it's grandiose feel and after the way At World's End concluded the first trilogy, this is probably not without valid reason. BUT in doing so Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides feels far too lightweight and meaningless to get excited over, way too kiddie Saturday morning cartoon-like to ever be more than frivolous 'fun' (if you are 7 years old) and it's never a bit interesting or inventive. It's a kids pop-up book brought to 'life' - though the movie is desperately searching for a pulse. Everyone, with the possible exception of the cinematographer & one actor, is coasting along here for the ride and the extravagant paycheque and what we are left with is a piece of Disney manufactured commercial blockbustering that quite frankly made me feel sea sick. How much of the hundreds of millions of dollars it took to make this film alone did Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, etc rake in for this mindless work and how much more will come their way for even more sequels and from backend deals? There's literally hundreds more worthy projects of passion trying to be sold in Cannes this week but when it opens on Wednesday audiences will most likely give another $1 billion to Walt Disney Pictures for this and hundreds of those promising pictures will never get made, or if already made, will never see the light of day. At this morning's Cannes press screening in a 70% empty Lumiere theatre, I kept telling myself to abandon ship, jump over board into Davey Jones' locker and let the poor wretched of those souls still left in the theatre to have their sanity devoured by the madness. But, I didn't listen, I stayed to the end of the still epically ridiculous 2 hour 17 minute running time (even with as simplistic a story as this, they couldn't make it pithy) and I just about got out there alive. I can't say for sure though that my brain hasn't been permanently damaged by the experience. Beginning in Spain with the uncovering of a map leading the way to the fountain of youth, the movie is basically a three ship race (Brits, Spaniards & Pirates) to the mythical place with Johnny Depp's now very much U-rated friendly Jack Sparrow our passive protagonist. After the franchise trick of ever changing allegiances somehow Sparrow ends up on the ship of the Queen Anne's Revenge as prisoner to the ruthless pirate Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach, played by a sinister Ian McShane. Anyone familiar with his villainous roles in films past, most memorably to me for being the Sexy Beast gangster villain where his piercing eyes seemed to stare into your soul, will know the restrained evil he is able to project so well... though of course here it's parading around somewhat as a loony, hammy villain. Oh and he has a crew of voodoo zombies who he controls with his sword, which I guess is the supernatural, hokey aspect all villains in a POTC franchise must have (cursed pirates in the original, the sea monsters of the sequels). Blackbeard's daughter is Angelica though she's hardly Angelic, played by a busting out Penelope Cruz, who as gifted as she is as a dramatic and now Oscar winning actress, still very much struggles with making her dialogue in blockbuster films feel anything but forced and untrue. Angelica is one of Sparrow's former lovers. So that's the Pirates equation of this trifecta action-adventure, though the Brit faction is itself led by a Pirate - Captain Barbossa, who is no longer the loveable granddad pirate that Geoffrey Rush was so ruined and burdened with in the previous sequel (though you might be mistaken for thinking he might be when you see his wig), who here has been hired by the English Crown to find the fountain of youth and he channels a little bit more of his evil nature from the original, thankfully. The Spaniards are just the Spaniards... and they are never given as big a place in this movie as the Brits have been previously. Out of the new cast, I actually really clung on to the performance of young Brit Sam Clafin who I guess will eventually become the new Orlando Bloom adventurer type of this series. Though he's not doing a lame Errol Flynn impersonation like his predecessor, his performance is way more earnest than that and he actually reminded me of Ioan Gruffod from Hornblower-fame and he fits this series well. In fact I wonder how much better the original trilogy might have been if he were cast in the leading man role from the get-go. Anyway, his sub-plot romance with a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) I enjoyed though it was undersold by the screenplay. I hope and expect that they will play bigger parts in the inevitable fifth and sixth film. The journey to the fountain feels rather dull and tedious but it's nothing compared to how tired events on the island in the third act conspire to be. The CGI action sequences, with the one exception of an actually well planned set piece involving the introduction of the mermaids, are disgusting in their disregard for the basic laws of reason. POTC 4 has video game logic. Why do people fly through the air like Superman? I understand logic was chucked out of the door with this franchise a long time ago but you can't really argue with gravity. Though the mermaid sequence is very well done and it reminded me a lot of something Ray Harryhausen might have made if he used CGI and was working in his prime today. Bravo for that, if nothing else. Sure Pirates of the Caribbean 3's ending with a heavy-handed battle during a vortex to oblivion was ridiculous and without time-travel or going into space it could only get smaller after that but POTC 4 is a dull and boring note in comparison and as convoluted as the previous two films were, well they were so much better than this. It's just empty and there's few worse cinematic crimes. And yes for those wondering, I once again watched a 3D movie without wearing the snazzy glasses and I feel I actually gained from the experience. My viewing was brighter, richer and was less likely to be victim of 3D headache syndrome that such a long movie can deliver. I occassionally put on the 3D glasses just to feel like I wasn't missing something but I was quickly reassured that I wasn't. I counted about a dozen blurry shots, most of which involved Blackbeard making his ship function by the throwing of a sword. I'm sure Johnny Depp, whose career it is painful to watch being shoved directly down the toilet, had a great time making the movie with his pals and previous co-stars but the movie lacks any sense of vitality or purpose. Briefly five things POTC: On Stranger Tides suffers from not having; 1) The somber and romantic notes of the previous trilogy, especially in regards to the villain. Barbossa wanted to feel again in the original, Davy Jones was heartbroken and tragic in the sequels... but there's nothing like that here for Blackbeard who is far more see-through and generic. 2) The British character actors. Painfully missing are actors like Tom Hollander or Jack Davenport (new addition Stephen Graham fails to capture the mood of the series) who always played it seriously and made the film feel more grounded into history. None of that here. 3) Jack Sparrow not having anything meaningful to do. Producers should stop worry about making him audience friendly and should desperately just have him cut loose and be daring. 4) Rob Marshall not been hired to direct. He is incapable of giving the life to this series that Verbinski was able to deliver with such a deft touch. His framing, his use of the musical cues, his inability to adapt to the action sequences and for invention make the movie so dull. 5) These guys. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opens everywhere next week. Bring the festival experience home this year on Blu-ray Disc €“ keep up to date with all the latest Blu-ray news at the Blu-ray Disc Reporter.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.