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“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is Disney Fluff at Its Most Reflexive and Subversive

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is Disney Fluff at Its Most Reflexive and Subversive

This review was originally published on May 20, 2011. It is being reposted for the home video release.

I have no problem admitting I love the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and was properly entertained by the latest, which is subtitled “On Stranger Tides.” Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is now one of cinema’s most iconic characters, like Groucho Marx, James Bond and Godzilla. And just as any great franchise goes through bad episodes and generally may lower in quality as it goes on, “POTC” will never be as good as that first film, 2003’s “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” but those who truly love the character will follow him wherever he sails. It is fitting that Depp will also be taking on the role of Nick Charles, another cinematic icon that has his share of weak films.

While I’m being frankly honest, I should also point out that “POTC” could never be my “Star Trek,” since I have no clue who any of the characters are by this point other than Jack Sparrow. Sure, I recognize Geoffrey Rush, and I kind of recall that other guy with the sideburns (Kevin McNally), but I couldn’t tell you their characters’ names any more than I can tell you the ingredients of the cereal I ate this morning. But part of my enjoyment of this series is how little I need to remember, or think about it at all. All I need is Depp prancing about in his costume and hopefully some actual, stunning Caribbean locations. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy the simplicity of that shouldn’t bother. I really wish most critics, the kind who went in knowing exactly how they felt about this sequel, hadn’t.

In this installment, the franchise somewhat reboots by abandoning most of the past three film’s characters, much of whom I’ve forgotten anyway, and throwing in a bunch more, almost all of whom have immediately slipped my mind. I recall that a lot of the plot and characters of the first three “POTC” films being compared to that and those of the “Star Wars” trilogy, which is funny when you consider that “On Stranger Tides” feels a lot like another George Lucas franchise, specifically the sequel “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Instead of everyone trying to find the Holy Grail and its rejuvenating powers, though, here Sparrow, Blackbeard (an awesome yet admittedly underused Ian McShane), Penelope Cruz, the British and the Spanish are all racing to locate the Fountain of Youth (I love Drew Taylor’s comparison to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”). Unfortunately, in this one the lead’s father (played again by Keith Richards, who pokes fun at himself with an obvious Fountain of Youth joke) doesn’t accompany him for the ride.

The concept is perfect for the series and the studio, which makes it all the weirder that Disney had to get the “suggestion” from a 1987 novel by Tim Powers (yes, this is an adaptation of a book as a sequel as a semi-reboot of an adaptation of a theme park ride). Disney itself is a figurative Fountain of Youth, of course. Walt Disney World is even in Florida, probably sitting atop the actual fountain, where Walt Disney himself has likely been drinking the water since the time of his alleged death in 1966 (coincidentally just as construction of the theme park was about to begin). And we know the studio was fascinated by the legend as early as 1953 when it sent Donald Duck and his nephews to central Florida in “Don’s Fountain of Youth” (watch it here). I’m sure it was intentionally diverting that the fountain in “On Stranger Tides” does not seem to be in Florida (though it could be). No way they’d so directly give away the secret of just how magic the Magic Kingdom is, right?

The living forever aspect isn’t just with the Fountain of Youth mission. There are also zombies in the film, not of the George Romero flesh-eating sort but a kind more related to the initial legend of servants hypnotized by Voodoo means. This original kind was a more mortal type, merely mindlessly enslaved through drugging. The zombies in “On Stranger Tides” aren’t so much brainless as entranced into subordination. And they may not even be totally immortal, though they don’t seem bothered when stabbed by swords. Is this just because they’re soothed by the magic? I guess I’m getting off track, but regardless I wish to point out that it’s amusingly fitting for Disney to involve zombies in a film that’s to be best appreciated with a zombie-ish mindset. Don’t question the Mouse House overlords, just go and consume the simple entertainment of the franchise sequel.

Then again, “On Stranger Tides” doesn’t favor the zombie method of immortality. Blackbeard could live forever by the same means by which he’s made his crew everlasting. But the Fountain of Youth doesn’t have the nasty corpse-like and dumbing down effects. Also, the fountain, which actually is not a source of complete immortality in the context of the film, merely allows you to feel young longer. Much like Walt Disney World, which prides itself for being a vacation destination for young-hearted adults as much as kids. And much like a film series such as “POTC,” which will live on as long as it allows its audience to feel like kids while watching it. The franchise is not so much mindless — at least in the opinion of this writer, who is obviously thinking too much about it — as ingenious in its elementariness.

Strangely enough, this sequel may not really be for actual kids. It seems to have even more sexual innuendo involving swordplay and butter-churning than the past installments did (though it’s not as dirty-minded as “Rango”). And a lot more blood and certain death. Other “POTC” movies might be a tad on the scary side with their skeletons and monsters, but “On Stranger Tides” has a sequence that is far more akin to “Piranha 3D” than parents bringing small children would appreciate. It’s actually like a cross between “Piranha 3D” and the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” which allows for more than one level of brilliance. Never mind the intriguing blurring of separate responses audiences have to fictional human slaughter and real (and fictional, as well, really) dolphin slaughter. The most fascinating thing about this sequence is how it plays with the lovable mermaid associations we have with Disney’s own “The Little Mermaid” and “Splash.” I’m not even sure what’s more reflexively subversive for the studio, to kill a bunch of little mermaids or to transform them into terrifying vampire-piranha-like demon creatures.

It is all too easy to dismiss “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” for being a simple and familiar sequel. But it has it’s moments, and mostly thanks to the flame-throwing pirate ship piloted by Blackbeard, I see it as something akin to Sundance sensation “Bellflower” in much of its appeal (the Queen Anne’s Revenge = the original Medusa apparently). I can see why not all of that film’s fans would also be fans of this, but I do easily imagine “Bellflower”‘s characters, and probably even its makers, enjoying it. There is also an appeal I associate with the most basic charms of the Marx Brothers, who certainly had their share of lowered-quality episodes. Sure, “POTC” is only as witty as a lesser Marx Brothers film and only creative enough to give us yet another version of the famous mirror sequence from “Duck Soup.” I can always get behind films that deal in doubles, though, such as impostors, twins, doppelgangers and celebrities who served as inspiration for characters now playing the parents of those characters as older mirror images of them. If Depp is involved in any of it, all the more favorable.

And I don’t consider this a guilty pleasure just because it caters to things I favor. There’s nothing guilty to the enjoyment of traditional narrative devices when they’re crafted as merrily as these films are. I don’t mind that the franchise has found the Fountain of Youth and will continue churning out more sequels. I’ll happily watch them all.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Recommended If You Like: the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise; the latter two “Indiana Jones” films; “Midnight Madness” (aka Disney’s younger take on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”

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