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Massawyrm shrugs off ON STRANGER TIDES

Hola all. Massawyrm here.

Leave it to the PIRATES franchise to plunder the last of its own remaining goodwill. In what will be overblown by many as “a disaster” or “a franchise killing event”, many of the folks behind the successful series have returned to make what amounts to your average, every day, run of the mill sequel. While there are no doubt a number of missteps here, ON STRANGER TIDES never commits the sin of being terrible; it merely, contrary to its own title, sails through all too familiar waters and squeezes out every last bit of personality it can from its characters before running aground on the shores of mediocrity. It is the first of the series that fans can easily skip without feeling like they’ve missed much, if anything, at all.

The series has painted itself into a corner, a fact its creators seem to acknowledge with the choices they’ve made in the film. Having consistently ramped up the levels of fantasy present in each installment, this film feels obligated to maintain its genre bending adventures by throwing in fantastic elements almost wholesale, regardless of what purpose those elements serve. There are zombies just for the sake of having them; a man can command the riggings of a ship to attack its crew; and Jack Sparrow once again has his magic McGuffin compass just to move the story along. Only a few of the elements feel natural at all and serve the story in any real way. And in this way, the series feels like it has actually lost its magic rather than having maintained it.

But the worst offense of the film is its insistence that Jack Sparrow is the protagonist. Jack Sparrow was never meant to be a protagonist. He is Coyote, Puck, Loki; the trickster that causes the leads of the story to go off into wildly different directions than they should, simply for his own amusement or gain. His narrative purpose is to cause adventure, not to go one. What made him so compelling was that he is a self-interested pirate who will screw over anyone to get what he wants, but is occasionally taken by feelings of guilt when he hoses someone truly pure, and then throws out that self-interest to help them out of the jam he’s gotten them into. He is fantastic in that role and Johnny Depp has crafted him into one of the truly great and instantly recognizable characters of our day that will no doubt go down in history as the bar by which other such characters are measured.

But he’s not a hero. Making him the focal point of the story means that we lose everything great about him, leaving only the impersonation and self-interest. He’s boring as the lead and you get the sense that he is acting only in a way that serves the story they were adapting to the screen.

What really drives this home is that the film has the prefect protagonist for a PIRATES film – a missionary, captured by Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and forced along on an adventure of which he wants no part. Sadly, this character is sorely neglected, left like a family dog permanently chained up in the backyard. Characters only speak to him when they have to and by the end, you could have cut him from the film completely and only have one narrative problem to solve. But he’s genuinely interesting. I would have loved to see the story of a holy man dragged ashore by pirates and exposed to faith questioning monsters and pagan rituals. What would a story about *that guy* be like when he ends up standing next to the legendary scourge of the seas Jack Sparrow? That would have been a movie worth seeing.

But this isn’t. It’s just there, feeling very much like the fifth or sixth book in a fantasy series only still kept alive by the author’s need to put food on the table when his other books don’t sell very well. If you are a diehard PIRATES fan, then you will see Jack Sparrow being Jack Sparrow, a number of your favorite side characters will make an appearance, and all the iconography you expect from the franchise will show up. There are some halfway decent action set pieces and a number of funny gags and one-liners. It is, for all intents and purposes, adequate popcorn fair. But nothing here will raise your pulse or make you hungry for a fifth installment. It simply exists and throws in enough interesting elements to keep your attention while you watch it.

I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the hatred this is getting vomited on it – it never commits any cardinal sins or loses the audience with truly terrible choices. It’s not bad; it’s just the exact kind of fire and forget movie making we are used to spilling out on screens over the course of any given summer. And it’s worth skipping unless you’re just looking for something to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon.

But if you see it, see it in 2D. The 3D only exists to fleece you of a few dollars more and stick swords out over the heads of the audience once every 20 minutes. It’s not the worst I’ve seen, but it certainly is fairly worthless.

Until next time friends,


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