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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Returns the Swash to Buckle
by Jeff Walls, Contributing Writer

Pirates Poster4 starsThe PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series is one of the most successful franchises in movie history. not bad for a project inspired by a rather laid-back amusement park ride. Still, even the biggest PIRATES fans would likely admit that after the terrific original, the sequels started getting a little out of hand. What makes for one of the more intriguing aspects going into the fourth film, ON STRANGER TIDES, is the question of whether the franchise will keep moving in that direction, or whether it will return the series back to the fun, swashbuckling spirit of the original. Happily, I can tell you that it is the latter.

Synopsis

When we last left Captain Jack Sparrow at the end of AT WORLD'S END, he was setting sail for the Fountain of Youth with little more than a rowboat, a bottle of rum, and his trusty compass. Something must have happened on his journey, however, as he is now a prisoner in London awaiting trial and a likely hanging. strangely, he's also at a local pub recruiting a new crew. Jack seems to be everywhere nowadays and even he can't seem to keep track of himself. It turns out the Jack at the pub is an imposter, and a pretty good one as their meeting echoes Groucho and Harpo Marx's square off at the mirror in DUCK SOUP.

This imposter, it turns out, is the first mate of the legendary pirate Blackbeard and Jack is soon deckhand/prisoner aboard his ship.  Blackbeard himself is looking for the Fountain in an attempt to counteract the prophecy that he will soon be killed by a one-legged man.  We also learn that it is Blackbeard who captured Jack's beloved Black Pearl.  You might remember that at the end of the last movie, the Captain of the Pearl was Barbossa, who, in an unexpected character twist, has gone straight and is now a member of the Royal Navy.  Both ships set sail for the Fountain, stopping only to capture a mermaid, a requirement for anyone seeking the magical healing powers of the Fountain.  They better hurry, however, as the Spanish are also in this race.  Whereas everyone else is seeking the miracle of youth, however, the Spanish expedition is inspired by a completely different set of motives.

Aside from Jack and Barbossa, the only returning character is Gibbs, outside of a brief Keith Richards cameo as Jack's father.  Gone are Will and Elizabeth, their youthful love story replaced by the unlikely pairing of a religious man and the captured mermaid.  This is a relatively minor subplot, however, as the movie also introduces a romantic sparring partner for Jack in the form of Penelope Cruz's Angelica.  They have a history that predates the previous three movies and good chemistry exists between the two characters, no matter whether they are flirting or dueling.

Simpler Action Path

Where this movie succeeds most is in the way that it refuses to get in its own way and keeps the action on a much simpler path.  Although there are still plenty of supernatural special effects to be found in ON STRANGER TIDES, there are no giant sea monsters or ship-engulfing whirlpools.  New series director Rob Marshall doesn't seem interested in one-upping the previous films and the movie is better for it.  The action itself is tamed down for the most part, focusing more on swordplay, which a key element in any swashbuckling adventure.  The best of these swordfights comes upon the initial meeting of Jack and Angelica, a dual that has echoes of Jack's first meeting with Will in the original.

The one major effects-driven action scene is also the one that has been the most talked about scene prior to the film's release.  It's the scene that involves the hunting of the mermaids, with some more conscientious observers comparing it to the slaughter of dolphins.  Although I can see where some comparisons can be drawn, it is difficult to compare the two as I've never seen a dolphin lure a man in with a kiss only to pull him underwater and rip him to shreds.

Good Use of 3D

The movie also made surprisingly good use of the 3D technology.  It is clear from the quality that the movie was actually shot in 3D and not simply converted in post-production.  The movie also took advantage of the technology.  Instead of simply using it to add depth, ON STRANGER TIDES stabbed at the audience with its array of weapons, none more frightening than Blackbeard’s intimidating Sword of Triton, and it manages to do this in a way that it won't look too obvious or cheesy to those who won't be watching it in 3D.

This movie could have been a disaster, but fortunately it seems cooler heads prevailed and the movie stuck true to the formula that got the series off to such a great start back in 2003.  It is also nice to see that the filmmakers are still finding room to weave in scenery direct from the original Disneyland attraction; a delight to any fan of the ride.  In case I haven't made my opinion clear in the previous 850 words, let me sum it up in 9: Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.

Rating

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo.  The mermaid hunting sequence is pretty intense and scary, and the flirtation between Jack and Angelica does get fairly suggestive. 

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES.

What Others Are Saying:

PluggedInOnline:  3 stars Mermaid tears and the endless years are what's on Captain Jack Sparrow's mind this go-round in this mincing, less-than-intrepid adventure. There are some small positive notes about spirituality, which makes this film worth at least a half-hearted "yo ho ho."

Crosswalk3 stars  Easily the dullest movie starring the wacky Captain Jack Sparrow, it should have leaned more heavily on the "strange," rather than having Jack all dressed up in his pirate garb with basically nothing to do after the first 15 minutes. With a new director, the pirates seem poised for more adventure at sea, but the journey to the Fountain of Youth just isn't that much fun. And if the screenwriters don't get their act together, this franchise is ultimately bound for a shipwreck.

CommonSenseMedia: 3 stars for 12+ This entry in the series is actually slightly less violent and creepy than the previous movies. But rum and wine do still flow in a couple of scenes, and there are loads of innuendo-laden comments.

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