I am a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but after the disappointing third outing, it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. However, the comedic and swashbuckling opening quickly set me at ease and reminded me of the more straightforward nature of The Curse of the Black Pearl. What cheered me up even more was that there would be no return of the insipid romance of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, which was wrapped up at the end of the third film in the series.
The opening gave the ever-ingenious Depp the platform he deserved to once again showcase his most famous character, Jack Sparrow, in the best way he knew how; slightly drunk, hilariously mischevious and dodging death once again like a cat with 900 lives. This character has entered itself so firmly into pop culture that I am still shocked that Depp lost out to Sean Penn on the 2003 Best Actor Oscar. By the end of the first 20 minutes, I was happily immersed in the search for the Fountain of Youth story and all thoughts of the tedious At World's End had left my mind.
On Stranger Tides profiles a myriad of other A-listers, from Pirates veteran Rush to new love interest Cruz. We even get some brilliant cameos from Richard Griffiths as the foppish King George, Judy Dench as a rich old dame who has a brief stirring for Jack Sparrow and Richards returning as Jack Sparrow's dear old dad, Captain Teague. None of the cameos are particularly required for the storyline, but it's like a walk through a period version of Madame Tussauds.
Cruz plays Angelica, a fearsome pirate in her own right, a true female match for Jack Sparrow. This character is enjoyable, if only for the fact that we do not have to watch fainting damsels in distress and can finally see a true pirate anti-heroine. Cruz has a great chemistry with Depp after starring opposite him in Blow in 2001 and their return does not disappoint. However, she is at her best opposite her on-screen father the infamous real life pirate, Blackbeard.
Blackbeard has once again been fictionalised and is being played by McShane (yes, TV's Lovejoy!!). McShane has a knack (albeit an annoying one for his co-stars) of stealing every scene that he is in. His performance is always grounded and despite the often mythical storylines and the fact that Blackbeard has been fictionalised and performed many times before, McShane plays him with a menacing realism. Blackbeard marks a return for the series to a more uncomplicated storyline and an authentic villain.
There is another young romance to fill the space left by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and although it is not as much of a focus as the Will/Elizabeth storyline, it is carried off well by newcomers Claflin and Berges-Frisbey. The pair play a doomed mermaid and a missionary who has been requested by Angelica to journey with her father's crew in the hope of saving her father's soul. Their parts are relatively small in comparison to the other pair, however they are infinitely more likeable (on and off the screen) to Bloom and Knightley. Look out for Claflin next year playing opposite Kristen Stewart's version of Snow White; it is possible that with these two roles that he could give R-Patz a run for his money.
Barbossa is dead, long live Barbossa. The second most infamous character of the Pirates franchise has to be Rush's chameleon-like Captain Hector Barbossa. Fresh from his 2011 BAFTA win, Rush returns to a well-loved character with aplomb. Barbossa goes one step further than Sparrow's ability to dodge death, in that he actually appeared to die at the end of The Curse of the Black Pearl, but was clearly too valuable a cast member to let go. This character always manages to land on his feet, although in this film one of those feet is wooden as he now has a peg leg courtesy of Blackbeard. In the words of Rush: "Jack and Barbossa are like husband and wife ... if they ever pulled together they could rule the seven seas." Many critics quite rightly say that the series couldn't survive without Depp, but I would also argue that it would be greatly lacking without Rush's Barbossa, one of the greatest heroes/villains in modern film.
On Stranger Tides is a return to form for the franchise and I would bet on it being one of the highest grossing films of the year. Not only because of the history of the series so far, but that word will get out that this is a great little adventure in both the franchise and in its own right. There will be some sceptics who will claim that it isn't a good as The Curse of the Black Pearl, but it is still a great sequel and it is where the series should have continued after the first film. The continuation of the story is all dependent on Depp's willingness to star again and on the box office take, and I honestly hope that it achieves both so that I can carry on watching the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow.