'Pirates' back for a swashbucking good time

In this film publicity image released by Disney, Johnny Depp, left, Penelope Cruz, right, and Ian McShane, background are shown in a scene from, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."

"Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides"
Jerry Bruckheimer Films
2 hours, 17 minutes

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies are an oddity unto themselves. There are literature adaptations, comic book adaptations, and video game adaptations galore out there, but how many theme park rides can you name that have a movie named after them, and not the other way around?

As often happens with genre series, the first "Pirates" movie was pretty good, and the subsequent two were terrible, though very lucrative. You might imagine that part four, then, would be a degree of quality lower even than the third film, which was pretty bad. Not so, however. With a new director, and released from the shackles of the earlier storyline, this new "Pirates" movie is actually pretty good. OK, well, it's not all that good, but it is fun and doesn't attempt to be anything other than what it is -- a good old-fashioned "shiver me timbers" buccaneer tale.

"On Stranger Tides" makes the shrewd decision to jettison most of the exposition from the previous three movies. All you really need to know is that there is a "Captain" Jack Sparrow, a lovable ne'er-do-well constantly in search of a ship to call his own. Yes, there are a few returning characters, and one or two small recurring plot elements, but for the most part, "Tides" is a stand-alone pirate film.

Sparrow, played with his trademark sloshiness by Johnny Depp, has found himself in the hands of the authorities once again, this time for the alleged attempt to resume his piratical activities by securing a ship and raising a crew in order to seek out the fabled Fountain of Youth. The problem is that the whole affair is news to Sparrow, who currently has no ship, nor crew to call his own. His unmasking of the imposter Sparrow is a cute and clever moment in a film populated with cute and clever moments. Before you know it, Sparrow and friends, including an antagonist in the form of Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa from at least two of the previous films, are off in search of the Fountain, braving every obstacle, from mermaids, to zombies, to the evil Blackbeard himself. It's silly, often preposterous, but always entertaining, Hollywood fluff.

One of the reasons that "Tides" feels different from the rest of the series is that its director is not Gore Verbinski, the creator of the previous films, but Rob Marshall, who brought us the smash hit "Chicago," and the change is a welcome one. Instead of being manacled to convoluted past plot, "Tides" builds a new mythology. That's not to say that the writing is always stellar, by any means, just that it's something you can follow.

Johnny Depp does his usual shuffling "Arthur" routine to great effect, and Ian McShane, as Blackbeard, really captures the menace. It's Barbossa, however, played by Rush, who is the true pirate. Sporting a peg-leg and a grudge, Barbossa manages to maintain an air of authenticity that few could match. Odd, though, I know Barbossa died in Part 1, and I'm not sure how he keeps popping up. Oh well, he does the best Long John Silver impression of the bunch.

The writing in the film is often cringe-worthy, but keeps the plot moving along quickly enough. One thing I can complain about, however, is the price of the film. Now, this should in now way be construed as a criticism for the management or employees of the theater where "Pirates" is showing here in Kenai, as those ticket prices are sent down from on high, but ... $12? Really? I know that the additional price adds up to a bigger box office payday for the studios, but it seems a little like, pardon the pun, piracy, to charge that much more for 3D, an effect that is little more than a gimmick. Sure, there are some cute moments when swords appear to point right at the audience off the screen, but for five dollars less, I think I could do without that.

These additional prices are also creating confusion when judging the relative success of a film. "Avatar," for example, is now the highest money maker in the history of film, but I'm not sure how that equates to actual tickets sold. Perhaps "Titanic" is still the winner when you consider actual viewers.

Either way, I guess James Cameron is happy.

Despite some issues, "On Stranger Tides" is a fun movie and shrewdly keeps things light and quick. The most notable effects, the mermaids, are alternately cool and silly -- a good way to describe the entire production, really.

I was so much more pleased with this film than the last two outings that I wouldn't even mind a fifth voyage of Sparrow and his raggedy crew. Will such a trip take place? Only time and IMAX 3D ticket sales will tell.

Grade: B+

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is rated PG-13 for language, violence, and just enough teasing of mermaid nudity to keep the teenage boys in their seats.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.