What’s a better pastime in Reading than going to the cinema? Well, water zorbing, perhaps. But if you really want to see a movie then how about pirates at sea instead of a big bubble by the Kennet? We decided to do just that this weekend and saw Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at the Vue in the Oracle.
Random question: why do so many major movie releases need to have lengthy titles with colons nowadays? Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows. Captain America: The First Avenger. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. X-Men: First Class. Give me: A break.
Anyway, the fourth instalment of Pirates sees Academy Award-nominated director Rob Marshall attempt to steer the franchise back towards critically acclaimed waters. The general consensus has been that the first movie, Curse of the Black Pearl, offered quintessential summer blockbuster fun, yet it was followed by two tedious sequels. The same could be said of The Matrix, come to think of it, yet that franchise never got the opportunity to come back for a fourth attempt. So, did Marshall succeed at making Pirates 4 into a must-see adventure?
Well, of course that is an irrelevant question. According to Box Office Mojo, the first three instalments grossed almost $2.7 billion worldwide. Meanwhile, according to Rotten Tomatoes, the critical reaction to the trilogy stood at 78%, 54% and 45% in order of release. The actual quality of these movies has become irrelevant. The fans were hooked with a strong initial outing. They were enticed back by memories of it and a powerful hype machine. If you catch this movie in a cinema then the last thing you’ll see before the screening will likely be a plug for the tie-in Lego video game. To be frank, this is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs for a movie based on a (dull) theme park ride.
The only creative hook on offer here was the iconic and entertaining character of Captain Jack Sparrow. To that end, Johnny Depp received the highest salary of any actor in Hollywood history for this movie: a cool $56 million. One Disney studio executive noted that “without him the franchise would be dead and buried.” Considering that a Pirates movie without Jack Sparrow sounds about as appealing as an episode of Doctor Who with no Doctor Who, it is hard to argue with this approach.
Focusing solely on Depp’s Sparrow, however, presents On Stranger Tides with its biggest challenge. Sparrow stole the show in the previous Pirates movies not just because of his eccentric charisma but because he shone in comparison to the straight-laced nature of the other characters. Gore Verbinski, director of the first three movies, hit the nail on the head when he noted that “You don’t want just the Jack Sparrow movie. It’s like having a garlic milkshake. He’s the spice and you need a lot of straight men … Let’s not give them too much Jack. It’s like too much dessert or too much of a good thing.” Marshall meets the challenge of utilising Sparrow as a lead via compromise. On Stranger Tides never quite lets Depp chew as much scenery as he has in his previous outings as Sparrow, yet neither is his character downplayed into unrecognisable inconsequence. It is a perfectly acceptable approach to a perfectly acceptable movie in a perfectly acceptable franchise that will make a more-than-acceptable gross ($635 million as at time of writing).
Make no mistake about it; fans of the Pirates series will certainly enjoy this latest romp. The dull headaches caused by viewing Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley attempt something called ‘acting’ have been soothed by their departure and subsequent arrival of franchise newcomers, Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz. McShane plays the villain of the piece, of course, with a supernatural spin on the infamous pirate, Blackbeard. Cruz again attempts to Anglicise herself in order to play Sparrow’s former love interest, Angelica. Via a suitable series of zany twists and turns, they join Depp and series mainstay Geoffrey Rush on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. All four characters have their own intentions for the mythical, life-giving prize, yet the Spanish navy has a head-start on them all. To make matters worse, there be mermaids in them there waters (okay, apologies for the attempted pirate vernacular…).
This movie does not re-invent the wheel, by any stretch of the imagination. It aims to simplify the Pirates format after the cumbersome weight of the previous two outings. In this sense, it is a triumph. Although it does not recapture the excitement and energy of Curse of the Black Pearl, it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the blockbuster fare scheduled to hit the multiplexes this summer. Adults will laugh out loud at the two killer lines delivered by Depp this time around (see if you can spot them for yourselves). Kids will get a kick out of the swordplay and swashbuckling on offer. Both will lap up the stellar special effects overseen by Jerry Bruckheimer Films, in particular the inventive mermaid scenes. Everyone will wonder why Sam Claflin’s negligible missionary character, Philip Swift, was included in the screenplay (well, everyone except for women, allegedly). Merchandise will fly off shelves the world over. Walt Disney will make a crap-ton of money. A fifth instalment will enter pre-production soon. Walt Disney will make even more money. The world will continue to turn.
At the end of the day, there is nothing strange about anything On Stranger Tides represents or offers. Yet, like an order from your favourite take-away place, sometimes there is just nothing wrong with that.