Over four films and now a new director, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been remarkably consistent in tone and quality. You could bemoan the commercial nature of this relentless studio enterprise or you could appreciate the quirks and idiosyncrasies that have somehow managed to survive the elephantine process. I’ve been a much happier moviegoer choosing to do the latter.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is more of the same, and most of it is good. As before, the movie emphasizes character over action, boasts the sort of imaginative production design that only a big studio budget will allow and projects an overall sense of whimsy. The story doesn’t make any sense, you say? Since when did anyone expect a summer blockbuster based on a Disney ride to be strong on story?
One thing the series does lose this time around is its central romantic couple, played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. But unless you were a tween, Bloom and Knightley have always been little more than milquetoast romantic filler. Johnny Depp does return and that’s all that really matters. His Capt. Jack Sparrow – amoral, selfish, irresistible – is the franchise’s compass, albeit a wobbly one. Sparrow’s clowning – even during life-and-death situations – sets the course for everything: the cheeky dialogue, the comically elaborate costumes, the willingness to pause and indulge in pure play.
Among the many Deppy moments in the new film is Sparrow’s audience with England’s King George after Sparrow has been capture by the royal guard. The point of suspense during the interrogation isn’t whether or not George will order Sparrow to be hung, but rather whether or not Sparrow will manage to get a bite of the tempting profiterole that sits on the table before him. (He does, of course, in the midst of a frantic escape in which the profiterole winds up perched on a chandelier.)
A later moment is even more representative of the big-budget playfulness that defines the franchise. Sparrow and an adversary are vying for a chest inside a ship that teeters on the edge of a cliff (don’t ask). As each tries to manipulate the delicate balance of the ship so that the chest slides their way, the sequence is part action scene and part vaudeville act, suggesting a pirate movie made by Buster Keaton.
Depp gets able support from new faces Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard and his pirate daughter. McShane, the dark soul of HBO’s “Deadwood,” is a glowering delight (sometimes literally, as when the ends of his dreadlocked beard shine like embers). Cruz, meanwhile, proves a witty romantic foil for Depp. When Sparrow admits that Cruz’s Angelica is the only woman who has ever elicited … not feelings, exactly, but “stirrings,” you understand where he’s coming from.
Make no mistake, though, this is Depp’s show. (When Angelica tries to impersonate Sparrow, it’s a bit of an inside joke that further proves the point.) If the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has an auteur, it’s not three-time director Gore Verbinski, new director Rob Marshall or even uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It’s the love child of Indiana Jones and Bugs Bunny at its center: Johnny Depp.