Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides: A Movie Review and Commentary

It doesn’t happen often, where I walk out of a movie theater at 2:30 am and feel as awake as midday. It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve seen a movie I enjoyed as much as the new Pirates of the Caribbean film, On Stranger Tides.

People who read my work frequently know that I cover school levies, political corruption, and legal maneuvering to great extent on these pages. However, I do an occasional story about football, motorcycles, and films also. My very first love in life is mythology, the stories of cultures. Stories tell you the true nature of the culture you are studying. This is why I know so much about the inner workings of politics, is because I understand the myths of the culture. So I can see through the stories politicians attempt to tell to sell the idea they are portraying. I know mythology from books. I know mythology from my life. And I know mythology from actually doing work in the entertainment business on occasion. So I understand all too well the difficulties of bringing a vast mythology to life that reflects more than what visuals can speak of, that speaks to the human heart. I learned when I was very young that some of the most accurate votes cast occurring in human culture is happening at movie theaters with the price of a ticket. What people chose to see at a movie theater is an accurate gage of the psychology of the over-all culture.

When it is all-encompassing, especially for people like me and the friends I associate with, to be politically active, to have concerns of George Soros and his “Open Society” of communist thought, or Barrack Obama’s latest faux pas, it is good, and revealing to step into a darkened theater and witness truth in the form of fiction. Even though many in Hollywood are leftists, the good stories they tell are not. Not the ones that sell tickets anyway. There are ideas in stories that contain truth because the mythology of that story has innate value, which transcended the political view points of the actors and directors because it’s the story that matters. It is the story that communicates. The actors are but vehicles that take you to the story.

The success of The Pirate of the Caribbean films reflects a deeper yearning in human society that moves beyond the political direction of power players such as what you might find in politics. The desire for individuality cannot be overlooked when the characters in films ooze such traits, and the recent surge in this last decade in the amount of young people who are getting tattoos is testimony to a social desire to “be unique,” to have something they choose themselves to place upon their bodies that they did not inherit from their parents. Something they decide to give themselves as a way to mark their bodies in an individual way. This is the inner pirate in all people, the desire to be unique, free, and left alone. The human need for this is very strong, and even though I, or anyone in my immediate family do not have tattoos of any kind, I understand the need. Tattoos are something I’d discourage someone from getting, because there are better ways to communicate individuality. But the human spirit craves authenticity. I have seen this same behavior in Key West where women completely undress at the Adam and Eve, the nude bar that sits above the Bull and Whistle and have body paint artists paint their bodies in such a way that they can walk down Duval Street completely nude, yet appear from a distance to be wearing cloths. The women get the sensation of being publicly nude and fearless, without openly breaking the law. This is an act of rebellion brought on by the necessity of an over-regulated society, a perversion of nature where an inner fantasy must be aligned with the living person because in daily life the two aspects function too far from each other.

I have acquaintances that work in show biz that are very liberal and often times they see me as their political enemy in matters of social value, but on a set or at the lunch table over a pizza, we have more in common then they’d wish to admit. I often shake my finger at them and remind them that they are living Doctor Jeckle and Mr. Hyde existences, and they won’t be happy as people until they unify their thoughts with their reality. But they don’t listen. Instead, they get tattoos and paint their bodies in drunken rages on occasion, because the social engineering doesn’t work, and their true natures only come out in drinking binges or in darkened theaters.

And that brings us to the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I know why I love pirates. I’ve talked about it on these pages at great length. I like them so much that when Branden Keefe of Channel 9 News came to my house recently to do a story he asked me, “Are those cannons?”

Yes,” I replied. He was looking at the cannons I have on my porch that I use to fire off during football games in the fall, or to announce the start of a new meeting at my house. I fired these cannons off at the start of a Tea Party meeting of the State Sovereignty Committee much to the amusement of my guests because they had never seen anything like that before. But my neighbors are used to it. Such things are part of the “pirate’s life for me.” It’s part of living the mythology of existence instead of just being a passive observer.

So am I alone in this love? No. People love The Pirate of the Caribbean movies. They love them for the high adventure. They love them for the spectacle. And they love them for the character Johnny Depp created in Captain Jack Sparrow. I was concerned when I learned that On Stranger Tides was going to have a more toned down budget then the previous film At Worlds End. Well…..in each of the previous three Pirate films, there were moments that I didn’t like. I enjoyed the overall story line, the high adventure, the sets, the visual effects, but I always felt there wasn’t quite enough swashbuckler in the series that should be oozing out of it. I always attributed this problem with too many characters and Disney-like sappy sub-plots that belonged in a different kind of movie. Critics like those sub-plots, but I don’t. A pirate film should be all about the swashbuckler and much less about emotion.

On Stranger Tides I expected to be not so good. I thought that if Disney pulled in the budget, that the franchise would suffer. But then I saw the budget, and noticed that even this scaled down version of the Pirates of the Caribbean series was north of $200 million, I was curious.

My wife and I planned to see the movie on Friday night. But, this is a film we wanted to share with our kids, because my kids grew up with a love of adventure films. I showed them every action film ever made when they were growing up, and they understand my passion for Pirates. Plus, in my family, our favorite past-time that we do together is playing the Pirates Constructible Strategy Game by WizKids, so my wife refused to go without the kids, and they were all working. So finding an open window where we could all get together and see the movie was very problematic, and I was getting irritated at all the various schedules.

During Saturday, May 21, 2011 I started checking the numbers from Box Office Mojo and saw that On Stranger Tides on Friday had pulled in $35 million which was good. Plus it had pulled in $92 million worldwide, so that was even better. The total take up to Saturday morning was $127 million, which is very good. If the film cost just over $200 million and Disney poured another $200 million in promotion, which means by the time everything is said and done, On Stranger Tides will be close to $500 million in total upfront investment, then Friday’s take puts it on target to recover its money, which is important, because for people like me, if a film like this doesn’t make its money back, more films like it won’t be made in the future. Plus, like I said, the amount of ticket sales is to me a kind of worldwide vote on the type of values our culture embraces, so I found such numbers much to my liking.

My wife and I entertained guests from across the pond on Saturday for a good part of the day. I kept looking at the clock all day for an opening that wouldn’t present itself. I told my wife, “We have to see the new Pirates movie this weekend! And we’re running out of time!”

She got on the phone and arranged to get my kids all together after everyone finished work and all their own social engagements were completed and we met at Showcase Cinema Springdale at 11:30 PM Saturday night, the last showing of Pirates for the day.

Again, I expected a fun film. I expected to be a little let down, but to enjoy the over-all tone of the film. What I saw surprised me.

The film was fantastic! It was a lot better than the other three. All the sappy sub-plots, the love story, the social commentary and all the confusing characters, were gone. What On Stranger Tides did was accomplish the perfect swashbuckler that would have made Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks proud. It was the best movie of its kind that I had seen since The Mask of Zorro in 1998. On Stranger Tides had great stunt coordination with the sword fights, and action sequences, it had compelling characters that you either loved or hated, the visual effects were fantastic and not over-the-top and the plot was a simple treasure hunt that had old-fashioned appeal. It was obvious the Pirates franchise had either discovered itself again, or had just re-invented itself into a mature adult. From the kind of film On Stranger Tides is, it is the perfect movie. I can’t think of a frame of film that I did not like. Maybe the sequence with the palm tree, I understand what they were trying to do, but the physics didn’t work for me. But other than that, everything was fantastic.

It was such a good movie, I actually have to place it somewhere between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as far as a film that captured the spirit of high adventure. It was that good of a film.

Those things aside, the move would have been awesome all by itself. But for me personally something else held my heart dearer than anything I’ve seen for years on a movie screen, or even in real life. When it first hit the screen around 12:20 in the morning I thought I had died and gone to heaven, for I had seen something that had only existed in my mind up to that point.

My wife and I have lots of secret places we like to run off to. I’ve talked about Key West, Newport on the Levy, our favorite book store among many things. One of our favorite places is Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play football. We love to stay in the Hilton on the Bay, eat at the International Mall, and catch a game at Ray Jay when we can get away for the weekend in the fall. Now, I love my wife. But one of my other great loves in this world is the Pirate Ship inside that stadium. I am utterly in love with the big skull that hangs off the bow of that ship, and has red glowing eyes and breathes smoke during the football game. I’ve told the Glazer family myself how much I admire them for building such a thing and I fly the Buccaneer flags they gave me personally every Sunday afternoon during football season in tribute to their pirate ship, because I think it is so innovative, creative, and such a good tool that engages the fans in the game. It certainly raised the bar in the NFL as to the fan experience. So what happened at 12:20 took my breath away, because it was obvious to me that Rob Marshall, director of On Stranger Tides feels the way I do about pirate ships with skulls on the bows.

The Queen Ann’s Revenge is a ship I know from our Pirates Constructible Game. I know the ship from history too, as the ship that Blackbeard died on when getting stuck on a sand bar off the coast of the Carolinas. Well, in this film, Blackbeard is alive and well, which he is fantastic to look at, and The Queen Ann’s Revenge is a haunted ghost ship that is absolutely spectacular. And I don’t mean spectacular with a little “s.” I mean SPECTACULAR! Nothing short of jaw dropping spectacular!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Disney crew actually built a life-sized ship that they filmed on. There was no cheap visual effects shortcut here. They built an actual life-sized ghost ship that oozed pure sinister evil over every frame of film. It is worth the price of a ticket just to see this ship on the screen. It’s that good!

The story worked at every level. It was fun, romantic, thrilling, mysterious, and historically authentic. The costume design was first-rate, and I mean Academy Award winning material. If On Stranger Tides doesn’t get Oscars for best Visual Effects, Sound, and Costume Design, I would hate to see the film that beats it, because those categories were all top-notch, and I mean top.

When the film ended, I felt refreshed, completely rejuvenated even in the small hours of the morning. The film took my family on an unforgettable adventure that is of a quality I have not seen in well over a decade. There have been good movies since the films I mentioned, like the Mask of Zorro, and the first two Indiana Jones films, but On Stranger Tides is the first that comes to my mind probably in the lifetimes of many young people going to see this film to have such an experience.

This was not a tired old recycle of a franchise. This was a stand-alone first film that would be forever remembered if it was part one and not a fourth film. Any fears of not having the characters of Elizabeth and Will in the film are dismissed. The film is about Captain Jack, but the supporting characters such as Penelope Cruz as the old flame of Sparrow and Blackbeard’s daughter was perfect. She fit the role as though she were born to play the part. Barbarossa was still perfectly played as he was in the other three films, but Blackbeard in this film could go down as a classic villain as popular as Darth Vader. He was that good in this film.

Will people go see this movie three, four, ten times like they did in previous films? I don’t know. We live in a pretty cynical age. Film goers are pretty jaded these days, so whether or not they appreciate what at good film On Stranger Tides truly is will remain to be seen. I was just complaining the other day that nobody was making films like this anymore, and Disney actually pulled it off and they did it by trimming down their budget and expectations. They put restrictions on themselves to make their funding model more viable and not attempt to be everything to everybody. They focused on just doing a good job and letting the chips fall where they may. And it worked.

This film should be a lesson to everyone. Sometimes, less is more. Put the money where it counts and decide what you don’t need than make everything count. On Stranger Tides does that very well and will go down in film history as one of the very best films that Hollywood has to offer in a long tradition of evoking modern mythology to reflect the consciousness of the human spirit.

This is Hollywood at it’s best!

Rich Hoffman