It’s been about 10 years since I last watched the first Pirates movie, but I remember it fondly as a very entertaining action-adventure film. Then the two sequels came out: Dead Man’s Chest had some decent bits but was a far more flawed film than the original, but like The Matrix Reloaded those flaws could have been forgiven had the concluding third film clicked all the pieces into place; unfortunately, like The Matrix Revolutions, At World’s End failed to do that in a satisfying way.
Now I’ve finally got round to watching On Stranger Tides, and… ‘Salright, I s’pose.
Wisely, the running time and sheer scale are reigned-in compared to At World’s End: last time we had giant sea goddesses, giant kraken, swordfights on giant rolling water-wheels and swordfights on horizontal ships stuck in giant whirlpools; this time we have human-sized mermaids, and swordfights set on solid ground. I mean, the action’s still ridiculous and implausible, but at it’s a relief to see the series retreating a little from the “bigger=better” philosophy.
Unfortunately the smaller scale doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s very good action. I remember that a clip showing Jack’s escape from King George was the first pre-release promotional clip I saw from this film, and it was the thing that put me off watching it entirely. There are better action scenes later on in the film (Jack tackling some Spanish soldiers with a rope wrapped round a coconut, for example), but this is an action film in which the action is probably the least exciting part. It’s not that it’s hard to tell what’s going on, the fights are competently shot in that respect, it’s just all… somehow tedious. If you care about the characters and stakes, you can be enthralled by any action scene, whether it’s short and mundane, or ridiculously OTT in scale – you don’t start nitpicking flaws, because you don’t want to. But if you find the action dull, you actively look for problems, and start asking pesky questions like “Hey, why didn’t that baddie attack our hero just then, he had a clear opening?” and “It may have been off-screen, but surely that guard would have seen him dodge out of sight just now?” and “THIS IS SILLY I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT WOULD EVER HAPPEN”. (Yes, I know that last one’s not a question.) Consequently, the blacksmith’s shop swordfight early in the first Pirates film is still probably the best action sequence the series ever had.
Onto some more positive notes (with qualifiers):
I thought that Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were at their best when they went all surreal and supernatural, with memorable images like the crab army and the intentional capsizing of a ship at sunset. On Stranger Tides has much less of that sort of thing, but what is seen works well: shrunken ships in bottles like Superman’s Kandor, water droplets that flow in reverse, a ship whose rigging comes alive at its captain’s command.
Blackbeard’s a good villain; his attitude is more deadpan and his tone of voice more cultured than that of the other pirates, which makes it somewhat disappointing that they give him the same “arr, that it be” speech patterns as a character like Barbossa. The mermaids are good, though I’m not quite sure what the point was of giving them Splash-style leg transformations, since after we see it happen to one she never walks but just gets gets carried. The absence of Orloondo Bland (thank you, Mark Kermode, for giving the world that name!) is good; his equivalent in this film is much better, a cleric whose relationship with one of those mermaids is probably the film’s best subplot. (The film’s concerns about religious faith and whether Edward Teach’s soul can ever be saved also work well: sketched in just well enough to give the relationships between Blackbeard, the missionary, and Penélope Cruz’s character some weight, without becoming obtrusive.)
Against my better judgement, I still quite like Johnny Depp flouncing around in the role of Jack Sparrow. Sorry.
The film’s depiction of the ritual involved in drinking from the Fountain of Youth is extremely reminiscent of the Holy Grail scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and compared to that, it comes off… poorly.
And there’s also something else that the film reminded me of. There are voodoo dolls in this movie. I’m not sure if they are from the original On Stranger Tides novel, but I know what they put me in mind of, and Pirates of the Caribbean really, definitely is no Monkey Island 2.
Self-awareness and pop-cultural referentiality had been done in many, many times in cartoons prior to the 1990s. But that was the decade in which that tone really became all the rage in American animation, thanks to things like The Simpsons and Animaniacs. Moments of earnestness and sentimentality couldn’t occur without being punctured by meta-humour and parody. Disney successfully embraced that style with the Genie character in Aladdin, and from then on, usually that tone was restricted to just one comic relief character (such as the dragon in Mulan, which as we all know is Eddie Murphy’s Third Best Film).
However, Hercules (which like Aladdin was directed by Musker and Clements) was probably the first Disney movie in which that oh-so-’90s tone pervaded the entire film. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as strong an example of that approach as the later, much more entertaining The Emperor’s New Groove.
Hercules himself is a fairly dull protagonist (his Disneyfied “origin story” has elements of Superman, and although people might be VERY WRONG when they criticise Superman for being boring, their reasons are absolutely valid when applied to this film’s Hercules). Fortunately, at least we get Meg and Hades, who follow that Disney villain tradition of getting most of the best lines and voice acting. Meg’s conflicted loyalties make her one of Disney’s most interesting heroines.
One of the most noteworthy things about the film is the presence of Gerald Scarfe as a contributor to character designs. There are a few designs in the film where his fingerprints are unmistakable – two pointy-nosed women look like they’ve stepped right out of the opening titles of Yes, Minister, and of course the film’s villain Hades is also clearly his work. If Scarfe’s original drawings (glimpsed in the Making Of featurette) had been used in undiluted form they would have scared the hell out of the kids, so understandably they had to be blended with the traditional Disney style! In addition, the Disney animators incorporated elements of classical Greek design into their animation.
However, although these three different styles work pretty well separately, they don’t blend together very well: you’ll have a clearly Scarfe-designed character right alongside one who’s pure traditional Disney (the Pegasus is basically the horse from Sleeping Beauty with wings), and they’ll both be alongside a character like Meg who very clearly illustrates the more stylised, angular approach. The computerised aspects only further complicate and confuse and the film’s look: the cloud-morphing is fine, but the Hydra blends CGI and cel animation in a way that looks rather dated today, and some shadows have that ugly blended gradation that’s a hallmark of computer-colouring (this issue was also prominent in the Jumba character in Lilo and Stitch).
The gospel songs sung by the Muses are fairly decent – if not up there with Aladdin and The Lion King – but the other songs in the film are unremarkable.
You want a Hercules-inspired animated film? Watch The Twelve Tasks of Asterix!