5/24/11

Why "On Stranger Tides" Didn't Recapture the Magic

My shameless summer of movies has officially begun.  I came up with the idea to see a movie in theaters at least once a week all summer back in April. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But here I am neck deep in work, with videos sitting unedited, interviews to edit, and more freelance than I can...as they say...shake a stick at. To top it off, we're moving hundreds of miles away in exactly two weeks and I haven't packed a single dish.

Yet I'm finding that forcing myself to spend the time and the money to see at least one movie a week is soothing. It gives me an opportunity to step away from the week, to schedule an afternoon here or there with a loved one.

 I saw "Thor" with Jake and my Dad. It was harmless fun that managed to maintain a surprising amount of the comic book visuals. It was a perfect appetizer to the upcoming summer movies. Light and fluffy. A no calorie endeavor. But enjoyable while you're having it.

I missed "Bridesmaids" and hope to make up for it. I'm eager to support the movie that has been such a sensation with feminists and normal people alike. (That was a joke...I'm a feminist so I can make fun of myself.)

Then last Sunday, I saw "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and the proverbial record screeched to a metaphorical stop. I started my shameless summer of movies because I was upset with myself for becoming so critical. For losing my love affair with the movies. Pirates should have been easy to love. But there's a reason why I waited so long to write about it. It's forcing me to confront that which I don't want to accept. My critical nature. The one I hate. The one I want to beat down with a baseball bat a la the werewolf hand above the fog "The Howling" style.

I should preface by saying that when "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" came out I saw it in theaters four times. I begged for the DVD for Christmas. I practically wore the special features down by watching them over and over and over and over again. They put me in my happy place even more than the actual movie did. But the movie? It was note perfect. An adventure that played on the cliches and conventions of it's own genre while simultaneously creating something entirely new. There were plenty of fun ride references for this Disneyphile and the film itself was visually beautiful. It was practically the perfect adventure.

As always with my reviews, this is a long one. So feel free to scroll down and read "Get to the Point" which is a condensed version of the review. Also, spoilers abound.



Beautiful mermaids? Won't that be fun?
Think again Mister...no fun for you!
Cut to last Sunday driving home from On Stranger Tides and I'm running through a list of possibilities about why I didn't like the movie.

Were there things I did like? You bet. I liked that they even made the movie. I liked their core concepts. I liked the casting. I enjoyed the performances, which were really good despite a lack of coherent material at times. And I'm a HUGE fan of this franchise. The first movie was a game-changer. So I'm not a ready-made Pirates hater. I'll always plunk down ticket money for one of these movies, no matter what. Always. And I'd be the first nerd to line up days before a premiere just to get to be there.

Am I a bitter fan? No, I love the first two Pirates movies and the ride and all the cheesy shrink-wrapped commercialism that surrounds the new Pirates universe.

Was there a reason why I didn't want to like it? No. I loved the cast. I was grateful they were going to go back and do it again after the dark and depressing third movie. I was ready for a redemption.

Had my tastes changed too much since the first movie debuted in 2003? Nope, I'm still the girl that pops in "The Haunted Mansion" just to cheer myself up on a gloomy day. So I can't be all snob now.

Here's the honest truth. From a writing stand point, the movie was boring. That's just the God's honest truth. It was boring. And I know exactly why I was bored. I've thought this out, I've jotted down notes trying to figure out why the movie didn't work the way Einstein may have tried to work out mathematical equations. I haven't read a single review or article about the movie anywhere else. If I'm going to continue my shameless summer of movies, I need to confront On Stranger Tides my way first and then see if the critics agree with me, though I wince to ponder where we may differ and I HATE the idea of criticizing a franchise that I want to continue. I wanted to like the movie. I really really wanted to like it. But the writing folded in on itself and, well...

Here's why the movie didn't work for me.

1. The story was too convoluted. The plot was nearly impossible to follow on a first watch. I'm sure there are answers for everything. That every little nuance and tiny snippet of a scene answers some other complication. Writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are good with complicated plots in the mathematical sense of the word, just listen to their commentaries for the first two Pirates movies and you'll see what I mean. (There is no commentary for the third.)

But an audience should be able to follow the plot without getting confused on a first watch. The first Pirates movie played out like a mystery and therefore when we encountered scenes or moments we didn't understand, we could go along with it knowing that the plot was unraveling. But we were asked to accept too much at face value this time. Why did we jump into the film when so much had changed from the conclusion of the last film?

At the end of the last film, they had the perfect set-up. Barbossa and Sparrow were set to race to the fountain of youth. We had finally jettisoned all the soap opera madness that had entangled the second two movies. We were finally to a place where we could have some fun again. FUN! Light blue waters, wacky heists, swashbuckling, and lighter stakes than world-ending, death-bringing consequences. But we see at the introduction to "On Stranger Tides" that all is lost again. Sparrow is shipless again, the crew has been split up, Barbossa lost the Pearl and a leg, and everyone is completely out of power again. It made me tired. It made me frustrated. Raising the stakes in a franchise doesn't mean that you have to take all the power away from all of your lead characters.

The original film unraveled around a centerpiece. So we could accept the unknowns in the story fully realizing that everything centered around that necklace, that piece of pirate gold worn by Keira Knightley's character. The characters reactions told us that. The camera itself told us that, zooming in on the prop multiple times. We were quite literally along for the ride. On Stranger Tides offers us no such comfort. We have mentions of important props long before we see them. We have other props that are meant to be cool little points of interest but instead act as confusing red herrings. (Ships in a bottle, the Missionary's Bible, Blackbeard's sword, a cream puff that seems all too important for a minute, a flaming wagon that seems like it will pay off by starting a chain reaction but instead is just there to look cool.) The first Pirates movie and less so the following two trained us to watch a certain way. This one changes the rules without telling the audience. No one central prop to draw our focus or help us to stay patient amidst the chaos of scenes and characters, which brings me to my next point...

2. There were just too many characters. We just didn't need a cast so big that we never got to spend any adequate time with anybody. The amazing idea to bring Blackbeard on was almost completely wasted for his lack of screen time. We didn't get to know him or understand him in any way. The amazing Penelope Cruz was wasted. We got more backstory for her than we did for anyone else. But still, when did she meet up with her father? How did she convince him she was his real daughter? We don't know. That's not to mention the Spanish army getting involved...or wait...was that Columbus? And also, who was the guy who got pulled up in the fishing net at the beginning and what did he have? I'm sure there are answers to these questions and please provide them in the comments section. My point is, the writing of the movie pointed to several different characters at key moments in the movie and then dropped them completely or barely paid them off.

Oh the promise of a cool new character...
Then there was the Keira Knightley/Orlando Bloom replacement duo of the mermaid and the missionary. These two present the perfect argument for why you should avoid writing yourself into a routine. They followed a certain romantic formula from the first film in which Bloom and Knightley were the real lead characters and Jack Sparrow was the wild card character.

This time, the two romantic leads are barely onscreen. They aren't really leads at all, they are peripheral to the story. We don't get to know them or understand them, therefore as an audience we feel zero emotional attachment and anytime they were onscreen  I was just wishing they would be gone so I could get back to what was supposed to be the main story. A mermaid and a missionary falling in love? Amazing idea. But it fell completely flat because they felt crammed into an otherwise completely full story. They should have been cut so we could spend more time with Cruz, Depp, Rush and McShane.

3. The film itself was too dark. I don't even mean in tone, though I'll get to that in a minute. I mean visually. I suspect that it's cheaper somehow to create all these visual effects set at night than it is to work with the glaring sun. In this movie, every ship is dirty and disgusting. Almost all the water is murky and creepy. All the rock is black and we barely get any of those beautiful tropical locations we so long to see in a movie of the adventure genre. When we do, we don't really understand where we are or how long it took to get there.

Tone wise...the movie jumped the shark for me when the mermaids
started punching through the bottom of the boat zombie-style. I appreciate that they wanted to shake up the mermaid myth a little bit. But it became laughable. The moment was almost too serious to believe. And once again...why so bloody violent? It just seemed silly. Part of me was just longing to see actual mermaid performers with real practical tails on swimming around. This was another case, I think, of unnecessary CG. They had yet another opportunity for some moments of beauty and they turned it into another dark killfest. There was just something visual about this movie that felt dingy. Ron Howard's mermaid from "Splash" a movie made over twenty years ago, felt so much more authentic and realistic than the CG mermaids in this movie.

4. Oh heck, let's just get back to listing...

Yet again, the strong female lead ends up stranded on an island at the end. And can someone please explain to me why he did that? Sparrow comes full circle by becoming the villain. By perpetrating the very act that jump-started his entire quest in the first movie. It made me kind of hate the guy for a minute...

Another thing, Sparrow was the quest-less victim in this movie. What did he ultimately want? Not much but to survive. Which equals not much fun to watch.

The zombies. Another idea that probably seemed like a surefire winner in the pitch room, but once again...WHY? They didn't do anything. They served almost no purpose but to further jam the script with red herrings and random points of interest that didn't serve the story. I think they were meant to show Blackbeard's cruelty, but we got that when he burnt a man alive.

Also, the physical universe of this film has become cartoonish in an unbelievable way. When Jack Sparrow can manipulate palm trees like Tom and Jerry can bang each other over the heads with mallets...I just don't feel the danger or the joy. I disconnect. In the first movie, when someone fell off a boat it was serious business. When Sparrow went wildly swinging through the air, even he was terrified. Now we can jump off cliffs head first, grab poisonous snakes without thinking twice and bungee jump from one palm tree to another without batting an eye. Though once again, if done practically and without CGI, those moments could have felt very real and authentic. What if they had used a real snake for Cruz to grab and CGI's those poison-indicating red stripes in after? In this case, it's not the writing. It's the authenticity with which the final moment is played on screen, and the CGI hurt those moments.

That's not to mention the traffic jam of supernatural happenings that are now no longer given explanations. The ships in bottles were very very cool, but how did Blackbeard do the things he did? I get that it was his sword. But can someone explain to me how and why Blackbeard did the magical things that he did? Is this some part of pirate lore that everyone knows and understands but me? I suspect that may be the case. But the sword was a nifty enough concept that it could've been lingered on or at least explained. Where did he get it? How does it work? I wanted to know. Did you?

Get to the Point

I hate myself for being the guy who can't just sit back and relax and watch a movie anymore. It's one of the consequences of life as a writer. And counter to what I'm saying, I'm glad they at least tried it again. But I'm begging. Praying. SCREAMING for someone to get their hands on this franchise that will take it back to being FUN AGAIN. Fun, fun, fun. We want fun. And I can feel that they tried. But the film felt like a series of vignettes, stuff somebody thought would be cool but ultimately doesn't blend into one coherent story. This script needed to be trimmed. Drastically. And the tone could use a bit of light-heartedness.

All I can say is what I've said for Indiana Jones and this very franchise before...keep trying...the box office proves that we'll see any pirates movie at least once. Your cast was wonderful. Your core concepts were winners. But slow the script down a bit, let us get to know your new hires and your new magical props. Forget having three sets of bad guys...just pick one. Let us see Barbossa captaining, let us see Jack Sparrow's steely-eyed focus set upon something he himself wants to accomplish. Front-load the action and plot so we can follow the story and feel invested in the action scenes so they don't feel hollow. Create a movie with re-watch value.

More than anything else, start fresh. Do something new with your characters. Don't try to copy the formula of the first film. Trust that you have created characters we care about and go from there. And for God's sake...no more burning people alive.

 My hope is that Depp and Disney will snag some new writers (Much respect to Elliot and Rossio, I just think maybe they feel too much pressure to build upon their own creations. But they've created an entire universe that could be added to with some fresh perspectives.), snag a new director and start going at these things like Bond movies. One at a time, carefully thought out, smaller stories.

What did you think?

2 comments:

  1. Sounds familiar... so many big action movies that are supposed to be fun have the same problems these days! Well, I look forward to your summer of movies- hope you see some good ones. I'm considering a summer of Harry Potter. I've never read the books or seen the movies but I ended up in front of the movie marathon on the Family Channel this weekend and got kind of...hooked...

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  2. We are in total agreement, rebooting the series should have been a perfect chance to simplify everything and bring back the fun.

    Instead they muddied up the waters for no good reason. I agree with you, the story should have kept the focus on Depp, Cruz, McShane and Rush.

    Thier characters should have been the main thrust of the story but instead everybody got the shaft.

    I really wanted this movie to just be good old fun like the first one, which I still thought was a tad long, but at least it was fun.

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