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POTC: On Stranger Tides (2011) -vs- POTC: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -vs- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

The FilmGuruThe Smackdown

The idea seemed outrageous. Around the turn of the century, Disney & Co. decided to translate one of its most iconic theme park rides into a film. About pirates. Seriously.

It’s not like pirates were all the rage at the time. A good pirate movie hadn’t been made since, well… Ever? Look, I never was one to get lost in the swashbuckling days of yesteryear with Errol Flynn. In my lifetime, I couldn’t remember a single good pirate movie.

Sure, pirates popped up in other films (The Princess Bride, Hook, etc.) but pirate movies weren’t popular. Think of the awful The Pirate Movie (1982), loosely based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. Or how about the horrible Geena Davis vehicle Cutthroat Island (1995) that bankrupted Carolco Pictures?

The point I’m making here is that Disney’s decision to create a movie based on its Pirates of the Caribbean ride was one of those decisions that could either be called mad genius or visionary.  When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl debuted in 2003, no one expected it would launch a box office powerhouse and a franchise that would be pumping out sequels for the next decade.

Yet, here we are. Having completed its first trilogy, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is now sailing into uncharted waters. No more ghost pirates. No Davy Jones. Will and Elizabeth, our young lovers from the original trilogy, are gone. All of which leaves Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) deservedly at the wheel.

Can Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides recreate the magic that launched the franchise with The Curse of the Black Pearl?

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The Challenger

Depp returns to his iconic role of Captain Jack Sparrow in this action-packed adventure that finds him crossing swords with the enigmatic Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a ravishing pirate with whom he shares a dubious past.

Forced aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge — the ship of the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) — Jack finds himself on a journey to find the fabled Fountain of Youth. Along the way Jack must use all his wiles to deal with Blackbeard and his crew of zombies, as well as the beautiful, enchanting mermaids whose masterful cunning can lure even the most seasoned sailor to his doom.

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, On Stranger Tides is the first film of the franchise shot in Disney Digital 3Dâ„¢.

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The Defending Champion

The Disney blockbuster The Curse of the Black Pearl caters to the summer moviegoer by offering action, romance, evil monsters, swordfights, intrigue, and suspense.

Keira Knightley portrays Elizabeth Swann, the daughter of a local magistrate who (as a young girl) befriends a boy named Will (Orlando Bloom) who is rescued from a shipwreck. The ship, story is told, was plundered by the Black Pearl, a phantom ship filled with phantom pirates.

All grown up and about to be married, Elizabeth finds her town under attack. She falls into the water, and is rescued by a nefarious pirate rogue named Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). But not before the medallion she is wearing has sent out its magical signal through the sea to the infamous Black Pearl.

That very night, the crew of the Black Pearl comes looking for its gold and the person to whom it belongs. They need it to break the curse they have lived under for ages. Will enlists the aide of Jack Sparrow to steal a ship and rescue Elizabeth. Naturally a chase ensues.

The Smackdown

To suggest that The Curse of the Black Pearl is just another pirate movie would be like saying that Star Wars was just another flying saucer movie. What director Gore Verbinski and his crew have done is recreate the genre to become something more than a two-dimensional stereotype. With a good, solid story and exciting, fun characters, the only curse here is that it ends too soon.

The film engages the audience on a number of levels, with action, comedy, romance, and some extraordinary special effects. The cast is excellent, from the witty rakishness of Depp’s Jack Sparrow to the beautiful but resolute Elizabeth deftly portrayed by Knightley. Bloom is wonderful as the young swordsmith who denies his love for Elizabeth while trying so hard to earn her affection. Geoffery Rush, who plays the villainous pirate Captain Barbossa, is excellent in this often-comical roll without every resorting to silliness or slapstick.

While the film is patently romantic at times, it never seems cliché. The worst thing that can be said for the film is that it has one of those Disney endings where everything works out as expected. Even if Disney had decided to never make another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl would still be a classic film remembered for years.

With On Stranger Tides, the franchise gets a much-needed boost with a fresh story. The Black Pearl (the focus of the past three films) is gone. Jack Sparrow (Depp) is a captain without a ship or crew. Geoffrey Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, now working in service to the king of England.

Because the Black Pearl is missing — lost at sea after running afowl of Blackbeard — we’re missing a big chunk of the supporting cast from the first three films. Our two favorite subjects of comedy relief, Pintel and Ragetti, are gone. As are Cotton and Marty. Only Gibbs (Kevin McNally) remains.

The rakish charm of Jack Sparrow continues to fuel the franchise. His ability to stumble out of any situation with a grace that makes every move look purposeful is part of what makes Jack fun to have around. He’s like Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, walking a fine line between mad fool and genius.

The quest for the film is more simple than the last couple of films, which — to be honest — had so many double-crossings that I had trouble following them. In On Stranger Tides, Jack finds himself helping Angelica to find the Fountain of Youth, though he never seems that interested in the waters for himself.

One new element to the Fountain of Youth mythos is the addition of mermaids. It is said that a mermaid’s tear must be added to one of the cups before drinking to ensure that the magic works.  Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays the ill-fated mermaid that the crew captures. Sam Claflin is a missionary who befriends — and ultimately falls in love with — the mermaid.

Hanz Zimmer returns to score this installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The original score for The Curse of the Black Pearl was done by Alan Silvestri, who left the film before completing the project. Klaus Badelt was brought in to finish the work — consulting heavily with Zimmer. Zimmer’s signature music has become an anthem for the action and adventure in these films. And he does not disappoint here.

Taking the helm for On Stranger Tides is Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha), who has some pretty big shoes to fill. His camera seems intent on capturing the same epic grandeur as the original, but doesn’t quite achieve it. Swordfights are in shadow. Ships on the high seas are seen mostly at night. And the mermaids are enigmatic creatures under darkened waters.

The Decision

The Curse of the Black Pearl was the best of the original trilogy, introducing us to great characters and giving us a fun ghost story to boot. Even eight years later, it works. This is a wonderful film that stands on its own.

As much as I enjoyed On Stranger Tides, it doesn’t live up to the original. Magic is hard to recreate. The wonder of a truly original film begins to wear and tarnish with every sequel. On its own, it’s a good film, but the winner of this Smackdown still goes to The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Watch the Trailer to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


8 Comments on POTC: On Stranger Tides (2011) -vs- POTC: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

  1. During “On Stranger Tides,” I found myself thinking about Harry Potter. His magical life is no more real than Jack Sparrow’s, I suppose, and yet the stakes in the Potter films feel more real because the characters have real lives and emotions, even though they also practice magic. But the Pirates characters do not feel like they have real emotions or lives. It is just one set piece after another. This was mind-blowing in the first installment but by number 4 it’s gotten a little thin. I didn’t hate “On Stranger Tides” but I did want it to be more than it was.

    As an aside, I was amused to see that Blackbeard in this film has even less reality than the Blackbeard I wrote for my Hallmark miniseries. 🙂

    • By the way, even the quest for the Fountain of Youth could have been more meaningful if they’d actually dealt with what it means.

      1) Have Jack’s Dad tell him that you can’t be an Old Pyrate, you’ll get yerself killed…

      2) Have Jack Sparrow get his ass kicked in a bar fight by a younger man.

      Then have him tag along only to realize there is no Fountain or, if there is, he still can’t drink from it.

      Or something. Anything. The film was bereft of any real stakes that meant anything.

  2. Kevin, my good fellow, you dissed on Cutthroat Island right at the top. Tell me, what was so “horrible” about it? I didn’t read the rest because THAT annoyed me.

    Geena Davis was marvelous in that film, as was the always awesome Frank Langella. The scripting was a foreshadow of the swashbuckling adventure Disney pilfered with their Pirates movies, and the music/production value was all first class. To be honest, I thought Cutthroat Island was a funny, action-packed (slightly unbelievable) adventure film which pre-dated Curse Of The Black Pearl by a decade or so, and delivered just as much rousing entertainment. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument about WHY Cutthroat Island is so “horrible”, so lay it on me big guy.

    • Wow… one Smackdown begets another…

    • My use of the word “horrible” was a description of how the film was received at the box office and how its mere $10 million domestic take was partially responsible for bankrupting the studio. I haven’t seen Cutthroat Island in over a decade and can’t remember much, other than I didn’t like it. If you did, that’s great. But I won’t be watching it again any time soon.

      • I watched it for the first time when I was working on Hallmark’s Blackbeard. I have exactly the same thought: I can’t remember much now, other than I didn’t much like it.

      • That’s a little disappointing. A film described as “horrible” because it didn’t do well at the box office?


        Hold on – I wonder what the pundits might have said had Titanic bombed back in ’97, or maybe Fellowship Of The Ring tanked back in 2001? No that I’m equating James Cameron or Peter Jackson with Renny Harlin (because, I mean, Harlin wasn’t a good director or anything – otherwise he may not have got that mega-budget up and about for Cutthroat Island…) but it strikes me that Cutthroat Island has become the defacto punching bag for “epic fail” in the modern era – a tag I think which is quite unfair, considering the talent both on-screen and off with that project.

        To describe a film as horrible simply because it underperforms commercially is wrong (for whatever reason) – horrible implies unwatchable – and I think the term you might have used is “unsuccessful”. Horrible would be a word used to describe the miasma that was Halle Berry’s Catwoman, a film so bereft of cohesive narrative or character development it’s like watching three random music videos mixed into one.

        Seems everybody’s prepared to hate on a film they don’t/can’t even remember much about – guess it’s too much to ask folks to back up their statements when it’s easier to reflect commonly held opinion as an individualized ideal.

        Sorry to drag this off-topic, Bryce. The rest of this Smack is excellent.

        • Debate is great.

          I’m not evaluating it based on its box office performance. I just remember not liking it. At the time I was watching Master and Commander and Horatio Hornblower and just found what Harlin had done wasn’t a credible movie.

          I think I thought Geena Davis was all wrong and not credible, too. At least that’s what I’m remembering now.

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