Friday, June 03, 2011

Angelica Malon on Stranger Tides

On Robot 6 last week, I posted some thoughts about letting the audience control artistic output. I used a bunch of quotes from famous writers to show why it’s a bad idea, including an example from Sam Raimi about adding Venom to Spider-Man 3 in spite of Raimi’s not really liking Venom very much. I’d like to add a couple of more examples to the pile.

As was pointed out to me a long time ago, Ocean’s 12 was a failed experiment at a different take on the Ocean’s 11 concept. Audiences reacted badly – and justifiably so – so in retaliation Soderbergh just remade Ocean’s 11 and called it Ocean’s 13. Which is pretty funny, but it doesn’t make Ocean’s 13 something that I’d ever want to watch again.

That also seems to be what’s going on with On Stranger Tides. Fans and critics were pretty vocal about not liking At World’s End and that distaste has colored the entire trilogy. In response, the makers of On Stranger Tides have created the Pirates movie that audiences said they wanted. And while some are pretty satisfied with the result, the movie has some big problems.

It starts out okay. Pretty good, actually. I was all ready for a movie about the new, relatively selfless Jack Sparrow and for a while it looks like that's what Stranger Tides offers. Johnny Depp’s still awesome in the role and the character is still a fun one (if over-reliant on his signature moves and catch phrases). The opening scenes in which Jack has to rescue Gibbs from prison and ends up having to rescue himself from King George's guard-filled palace are mostly awesome. Without having to explain it, the movie presents Jack as the same kind of character as Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes: always fifteen steps ahead of everyone else so that things appear to just fall into place for him.

There was one bit in that opening sequence though that was all wrong and rang the chimes of doom for the rest of the film. Jack rushes by a surprised guard who then gives chase. Jack manages to get away for a moment and as the guard runs past Jack’s hiding place, he inexplicably sets Jack's sword and pistol on a table. I suppose you could argue that the guard thought he could chase faster without them, but it's awfully convenient and of course Jack picks them up. I wish it was the only over-coincidental bit of the movie, but the story’s filled with those moments. Jack’s escapes get more ludicrous, people have superpowers for no reason, and absolutely everyone knows how to find the Fountain of Youth and what to do with it when they get there (except Jack who’s presumably been searching for it longer than anyone else).

The movie is very silly and cartoony, but that might have been forgivable had it actually done what it was supposed to do: continue the story of Captain Jack Sparrow. When last we left Jack, he’d become a kinder pirate and we do see that reflected in On Stranger Tides. But that’s what he grew into in the last trilogy. For his story to be worth continuing, he needs to go somewhere new.

The journey promised by At World’s End is Jack’s quest for immortality. He died in Dead Man’s Chest and was terrified of repeating the experience. It drove everything he did in At World’s End and made sense of his quest for the Fountain of Youth. But as Stranger Tides opens, Jack’s pretty much given up the quest and has to be pulled back into it. There’s no personal urgency to his finding it. Instead, he fills a role much like he did in the original trilogy: running around making things more interesting for the characters who actually have story arcs. Excuse me: the character who has a story arc. Because there’s only one.

Something that On Stranger Tides does have in common with its predecessors is that the actual main character is the female lead, in this case Angelica Malon (Penélope Cruz). She has a very good reason for wanting to find the Fountain of Youth: Her father, Blackbeard has been prophesied for death (a second time, since the movie takes place after his historical death) and Angelica wants to give him more time to repent so that his soul might be saved. She even brings a missionary on the trip in an attempt to reach her dad, but the movie’s never sure what to do with the priest other than throw him into a half-hearted romance with a mermaid who is herself nothing more than an element of the quest. Even Blackbeard – as cool as Ian McShane plays him – is a MacGuffin whose only purpose is to drive Angelica’s story.

Angelica is a complicated character though. Her obsession with saving her father trumps everything else, making her do and agree to some pretty heinous things. But Cruz is beautiful, charming, and injured and I wanted to like her. I didn’t excuse or forgive her for her actions, but I wanted to. That put me in an interesting predicament and is pretty cool.

The movie tries to bring her and Jack together in a meaningful way in order to give Jack’s story some weight, but it fails. To start with, it’s the old, They Were Lovers Way Back When Even Though Jack’s Never Mentioned Her Before ploy. I’d have been okay with that as long as there was some chemistry between the characters to make me believe they really were lovers way back when, but there’s not. If there were, the film wouldn’t need the long-lost lovers back-story. We'd just believe that Jack does what he does for love of Angelica. Instead, in the absence of presenting any real passion between the two characters, the film asks its audience to settle for being told that it exists. That doesn’t work.

On Stranger Tides was written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the two guys who wrote the original trilogy, so it’s not like Disney hired a bunch of new guys who didn’t know what they were doing to take over. Maybe it really was a case of trying to give the audience what it said it wanted and failing as a result. Whatever the reason, I hope that Pirates 5 manages to put the series back on track and turn On Stranger Tides into an unfortunate speedbump. There are elements in On Stranger Tides that suggest that could be the case and I really am interested in learning more about Angelica. I just don’t want another film like this one.
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