By this time next week, I’m fully expecting any doubts about the commercial future of the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise to have been fully resolved. For whilst the last two films struggled to win over critics, they still brought home the best part of $2bn in box office change, and there’s little to suggest that Disney won’t be on the receiving end of a box office bonanza this coming week.
However, this remains a franchise in trouble.
Critical response to the fourth film in the saga, On Stranger Tides, has been muted. And personally, I had lots of problems with it. The muddled subplots, the failure to learn many necessary lessons and the criminal lack of solid characters really hurt the film for me. To be fair, most of those who write for Den Of Geek who have seen the film are a little happier with it, and Paul Martinovic’s review is a fair reflection of that. You can read that here.
Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that On Stranger Tides is a massive, massive missed opportunity, an untaken chance to bring the franchise back to the level of the first film. And it shouldn’t really have ended up like this.
As it stands, I suspect that the movie may get a bit of a battering on the message boards this coming weekend, and given that Disney already has a script for Pirates 5 in its hands, might I make a few suggests that might just give the franchise a proper shot in the arm? Right now, for me, it’s one good film and three bad ones. And unless something dramatic changes, the prognosis isn’t great.
So, here goes…
More Time Needs To Be Taken
This is absolutely crucial. Just vital. The fact that a script for the fifth Pirates movie has already been delivered, albeit a first draft, is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Because what needs to happen here is for reaction and response to the fourth film to be properly digested. And there’s a lot to digest.
It’s a widely held belief that Dead Men’s Chest and At World’s End suffered massively from being shot back to back, and while there’s a more relaxed gap between films four and five, there’s still a strong hint that Disney would like to set sail again sooner rather than later.
It shouldn’t. Film four was supposed to be a reboot of the franchise, but it plainly wasn’t. The fifth film may just be the last chance to get the franchise back on course, and a good year or two of extra preparation is the bare minimum Disney should be considering.
The Curse Of The Black Pearl had, in the shape of Geoffrey Rush, at least some kind of interesting antagonist. And while he’s all but swapped sides these days, there’s nothing been brought in his place to fill the void.
The biggest crime of On Stranger Tides, for me, is the absolute squandering of Ian McShane. On the small screen, in Deadwood, he’s one of the most iconic, unnerving and downright brilliant villains of recent times. In Pirates 4? He’s reduced to a pantomime villain through a script that, frankly, insults the man.
How does this happen? Because a movie about pirates should, surely, be able to conjure someone up worth fighting. The Pirates franchise hasn’t done that since the first movie, for me.There’s Still An Over-reliance On Johnny Depp And Geoffrey Rush
Much of the reason that On Stranger Tides does gain some positive word is the ongoing performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. To say that the Pirates franchise depends on him would be no understatement, and it often feels like he’s shoved onto the screen to adlib a bit, while those behind the scenes work everything else out.
This, for a major blockbuster, just isn’t good enough, but all concerned know they have a get-out card with their leading man. Sadly, the laws of diminishing returns are beginning to bite.
The same, too, with Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, who has long since lost any sinister edge he had. He’s fun to watch, but he’s there because, it feels, we don’t know anybody else outside of him and Captain Jack.
And that’s the problem. Having sat through Pirates 2 to 4, can you remember the name of one single character, outside of Davy Jones, who was introduced for the first time in them? Because I can’t. Not one of them.The Subplots Have To Go
It didn’t take much to conclude that Pirates 2 and 3 suffered greatly due to a scary number of subplots. That, in itself, was a problem, before you factor in that it was hard to give two hoots about any of them, either.
Staggeringly, Pirates 4 makes exactly the same mistake. In the aftermath of a quite brilliant action sequence towards the middle of the film, the story injects a monotonous side narrative that, at its very best, is treading water. At its worst, it makes you wonder if anyone checked the script out before getting everybody back together.
The end result is, at the point the film needs to be building towards something, it keeps interrupting itself to go and check on something else. A major lesson simply hasn’t been learned.It’s Time For New Writers
Much was made of the fact that Rob Marshall replaced Gore Verbinski as director for On Stranger Tides, but I can’t help but feel that the wrong personnel got changed. Marshall doesn’t do a brilliant job with Pirates 4, but he knocks one outstanding central scene together and strings the rest together competently enough (although there’s a bit of a computer game feel to some of the action scenes).
Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who have penned the four movies to date, are far better writers than I’ve any hope of being, but surely the time is right to give someone else the reins?
For Pirates 5, Rossio is sailing solo, with Elliott ducking out. But the films sorely need a slightly different voice and a fresh pair of eyes on the story. Because, as it turned out, changing the director was only part of what needed to be done.
I genuinely believe that there’s an audience out there craving more Pirates movies and hoping to enjoy them. But under the current approach, it’s impossible to see that continuing too much further.
This is, for me, a franchise that’s being powered by goodwill and star power rather than story, and it really deserves better than that. The problem is that, unless there’s a genuine desire to make things better, and do a proper ‘reboot’, then Pirates 5 will just offer variations on the same problems that have been bubbling up for years now.
The courage to solve those problems? It’s nowhere in sight, sadly…