Posted by: C.E. Chambers | June 15, 2011

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

(official Walt Disney theatrical release poster)

(official Walt Disney theatrical release poster)


(movie still: Philip and Syrena, the mermaid)

By C.E. Chambers   Posted June 15, 2011

(Read an update about Sergio, the dark-haired barista, after the critique.)

I asked a young barista recently if he had seen the fourth adventure in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga.  “No,” he answered, as he made my iced latte.  “I heard it pushed religion on people.”

Christianity is portrayed in a positive light in this film which is as rare as the sighting of a blue-footed booby in a cold climate.  The entertainment industry sometimes sanctions very devout representatives of other religions — upstanding and compassionate people we would trust with our children as well as with our confidences — but Christians are largely non-existent or the butt of cheap stereotypes and stale jokes.

So what’s a “Bible thumper” (Jack Sparrow’s terminology) doing in a pirate flick?

It’s unusual for a film that runs longer than two hours (136 minutes) to pick up momentum halfway through, but the unexpected addition of a handsome Christian man lashed to the mast of a ship captained by the most loathsome of pirates — Blackbeard — is a startling plot twist.  Philip (played by Sam Claflin) is extremely pious but is also allowed to be portrayed as chivalrous and brave.  Not only does he rescue a captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) from a slow death as numerous other characters callously ignore her plight, he tenderly covers her with his shirt when, shivering, she begins to morph into a human after a forced separation from water.  Later, he unhesitatingly wields a sword in battle.

The main protagonist in “On Stranger Tides” is, of course, the “notorious and infamous” pirate, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).  Audiences will probably never tire of his quirky but endearing mannerisms and quick wit, but ghastly underworld characters have worn out their welcome.  The introduction of comely mermaids with angelic faces and well-modulated voices who speak intelligently and flatteringly to captivated sailors are a vast improvement.  Even they, however, hiss like cats and flash razor-sharp teeth when irritated.  (The two “zombified” sailors on Blackbeard’s ship are characters better suited for a low-budget flick.)

In the film’s first scenes, Jack Sparrow is brought struggling before a British court.  He’s a “pillager and highwayman” and his fate — death by hanging — is a certainty.  However, when his black hood is removed, lo and behold, the face of his loyal first mate, Gibbs, emerges (Kevin McNally).  Jack, who is busily impersonating a bewigged British judge, charges him with being “innocent of being Jack Sparrow.”

Both Sparrow and Gibbs think they have extricated themselves from this charade but Jack is kidnapped and taken to the palace of King George II.

“Your face is familiar,” quips Jack, whose arms are manacled to an ornate gold chair.  “Have I threatened you before?”

King George II grumpily informs him that Spaniards have discovered the location to the much-coveted Fountain of Youth, and promises him the protection of the Crown if he’ll lead the British Navy to the supernatural water first.  Jack, who acquired a map to the Fountain in “At World’s End,” uncharitably escapes the King’s clutches.  He performs several hair-raising stunts on the rustic streets of London and is rescued by his father (Keith Richards).

Jack encounters an imposter wearing a disguise who’s been putting together a ship’s crew in his name and engages in a rousing sword fight — only to discover to his shock that his opponent is Angelica Malon (Penélope Cruz).  He seduced her some years ago in a Spanish convent just before she was to take her vows.  Angelica is consumed with hatred for Jack and a war of words ensues which monopolizes their relationship throughout the film.  He accuses her of having hidden talents (snicker, snicker) before she met him.

Angelica confides to Jack that the nefarious pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), is her biological father.  Jack is taken against his will to Blackbeard’s ship, and learns that he, too, is headed for the Fountain of Youth.

Meanwhile, the “privateer” captain of the British Royal Navy ship turns out to be none other than the formidable Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).  He’s an antagonist-turned-protagonist in the “Pirates” franchise who, between films, lost a leg in an altercation with Blackbeard.  Gibbs is also on board; he’s promised to lead King George’s men to the Fountain of Youth in exchange for his life.

Who will arrive at the Fountain first?  The Spanish Navy?  The British Navy?  Or Blackbeard?  Who will be lucky enough to capture an elusive mermaid and force a tear to flow from her unwilling eye into a silver chalice?  These are the secret ingredients needed to unlock the power latent in the mystic water.  Unfortunately, the formula also requires a “victim”: someone who will sacrifice his life on behalf of the person insatiably seeking eternal life.

Ian McShane, as Blackbeard, and Keith Richards, as Jack’s father, have great screen presence.  You just can’t beat the Brits for good diction, depth and nuance.  McShane, in particular, has the spectral blue eyes and controlled but simmering menace of an accomplished pirate.  Although some film critics thought Johnny Depp was imitating a cross-dresser in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, he confessed to imitating Keith Richards, the often-inebriated guitarist from the Rolling Stones.  During a sword fight in this film in which Jack is greatly outnumbered, he remains true to character and stops for a moment to greedily drink wine gushing forth from a punctured wooden keg.

After watching “On Stranger Tides,” some viewers have questioned whether a fifth installment in the “Pirates” franchise will transform the bickering Jack Sparrow and Angelica into lovers.  However, there’s a dual cliffhanger: Can a besotted clergyman find eternal bliss with a good-hearted mermaid?

Even more important than these questions:  If “On Stranger Tides” doesn’t do well at the box office, will Hollywood throw Christian characters back to the lions?

(Rated PG-13: sexual innuendos, sword fights, man burned alive, mermaids w/long hair covering breasts, heroic Christian man)

Producer:  Jerry Bruckheimer

Director:  Rob Marshall

Screenplay:  Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio

Distributor:  Walt Disney Films

Inspired by Tim Powers’ novel, On Stranger Tides

(Written by C.E. Chambers and published June 2011.)

(Note:  Sergio, the dark-haired barista, and his boss decided to see this film after all.   They enjoyed it very much.  In fact, Sergio, who is a Johnny Depp fan, plans to purchase the DVD once it’s released.  He shared recently that he hasn’t tired of what I termed “ghastly underworld creatures.”)

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