Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment in the Disney action franchise, is the worst reviewed of the films to date — a certified rotten 34 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 11 percent below the previously worst reviewed of the series, 2007′s At World’s End, and a whopping 45 percent below the certified fresh first movie in the series, The Curse of the Black Pearl.
What I can’t figure out is exactly why.
Look, I get that the Pirates of the Caribbean films have become a little bit stale. Jerry Bruckheimer’s tricks aren’t for everyone and they certainly get old when you’ve seen them with roughly the same cast of characters and in the same setting four times in less than a decade.
I also can understand the sequel-summer-blockbuster backlash that is at play here. It’s certainly frustrating to see Hollywood churn out comic book adaptation after comic book adaptation and franchised sequel after franchised sequel all summer long when many a moviegoer is starving for something as original and compelling as Inception. 2011 was a particularly bad year for this phenomenon, and the newest Pirates may well have been one of the most notable examples of it. But it was hardly the worst sin committed during a wretched summer period.
In fact, I found On Stranger Tides (which I finally got around to watching a few weeks ago) to be quite enjoyable and entertaining, and not even in a post-modernly, ironic The Expendables kind of way. Gone, thankfully, are both Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom in the fourth movie. There was never much chemistry between the pair as on-screen love interests, and Bloom, for his part, is wretched in just about everything he does. The Curse of the Black Pearl was so refreshing when it was first released — Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow so delightful — that it was easy to overlook at first, but not so much as the series droned on.
In their place are Penelope Cruz, who brings significantly more crackle to the movies as the female lead and foil for Sparrow, Sam Claflin as Philip Swift, who is not really any better than Bloom, but at least isn’t as big a star and thus is afforded much less in the way of lines and screen time simply because of that fact. Introduced also is Ian McShane (as Blackbeard) and featured prominently once again is Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa.
Yes, we’ve been on this ride before — a fitting metaphor given the inspiration of the four-film franchise. Yes, like every other installment in the series, it lasted a little bit too long. But the infusion of Cruz and McShane and the addition by subtraction of Bloom and Knightley was more than enough to breathe a little bit of life into a series that, as long as Depp is around to amuse us as Captain Jack, is worth giving a chance each and every time.
The key is not to think of it as high art — but rather in a James Bond-ian sense. No matter how bad the previous film was, you’re always kind of curious to see what 007 is up to, a courtesy that Depp’s Sparrow seems to have earned as well at this point.