The flamboyant and often inebriated Captain Jack Sparrow is once again marooned at port with need of a ship. Of course, he’d love to be able to get his hands back on his beloved Black Pearl, but, well, any ship in a storm, to twist the phrase. And there does indeed seem to be a storm brewing around this mincing, less-than-intrepid adventurer.
The authorities are chasing him through the streets of London for some reason. And rumors are swirling that someone is impersonating him and raising up a crew. This won’t stand! The only person allowed to impersonate a captain named Jack Sparrow is Jack Sparrow himself!
Upon confronting the interloper, Jack discovers that he’s a she. Specifically, she’s Angelica, a hot-blooded former flame. But after some cross words and few crossed swords, Jack is convinced … well, shanghaied into helping his beautiful ex.
Angelica and her father, Captain Blackbeard, you see, are off to find the Fountain of Youth. And they’re not alone. It seems everybody is suddenly bitten by the bug to locate Ponce de León’s fabled fount. Jack’s longtime rival, Captain Barbossa, has become a privateer for the crown of England. And the king of Spain has sent his own powerful force to join the hunt too. All are racing to claim the mystical waters of everlasting life. They just need to find two magical challises and a single tear from a mermaid first.
But mermaid tears aren’t as easy to come by as you might think.
Jack saves Angelica’s life, albeit by duplicitous means. And when he learns that the Fountain of Youth ritual will actually claim someone’s life, he says, “I find my desire for the fountain greatly lessened.” He shies away from participating until forced. Jack also gives his precious compass to his former first mate Gibbs to help the man escape Blackbeard’s grasp.
For Angelica’s part, it’s obvious that she has a compassionate heart beneath her spitfire exterior. She pleads for a missionary’s life before the ruthless Blackbeard. And when the time comes, she’s ready to die to save her father, even though she’s troubled by his wickedness.
That missionary, named Philip, is a very caring soul. He reaches out to Blackbeard and others. And when a mermaid is suffering, he moves to help, giving her his shirt to cover her nakedness and later struggling, while badly wounded, to set her free. He asks her to forgive him for helping Blackbeard capture her.
Just like in past franchise entries, dark spirituality is sprinkled throughout the tale. For instance, Blackbeard’s officers are all walking dead zombies. And, though never explained, the captain’s sword is imbued with a power that can cause the ropes in his ship’s rigging to writhe at his command. Blackbeard also stitches together a voodoo doll that instantly has a magical connection to Jack. Magic bottles hold real ships that have been miniaturized—with their crews still intact. Blackbeard is given a prophesy that he will be killed by a one-legged man.
The half woman/half fish mermaids are a supernatural lot as well. And we see them transform from innocent-looking beauties to vampire-fanged killers. When pulled up on land, their tails become legs.
As mentioned, utilizing the Fountain of Youth involves both a recipient of rejuvenation and a victim who must lose the remaining years of his life. And when the king of England vows to find it before the Spanish, he rants, “I will not have a … Catholic gain eternal life.” Then, when a Spaniard first sees the fountain, he proclaims, “Only God can give eternal life, not this pagan water!” So surrounding this sacrificial pagan structure, the movie does raise questions of God and faith. Reportedly, Angelica was once set to enter a convent before she met Jack. And she tells her father, “Every soul can be saved.” Philip expresses the same sentiment.
Jack, though, twists the idea of true salvation into the notion that a man’s own sacrificial act can wash his soul clean.
When Blackbeard is heaving his ship around to kill a man in the water below, Philip pleads for the victim’s life. Blackbeard taunts the missionary with, “Why don’t you pray that the man will be delivered from evil?” After finding what they think is a dead body in their nets, two sailors cross themselves. Angelica and Philip both wear crosses around their necks. Barbossa swears by “the gods of sea and sky.”
There’s definitely a sexual tension between Jack and Angelica. The two spar and flirt, tussling and wrestling in a sexually tinged manner once or twice. We hear a conversation about Jack once corrupting her. And as to why he was at her convent in the first place, Jack states that he mistook it for a brothel. Angelica later makes a couple of sly, sexually loaded comments about Jack. We see them kiss once … while she’s dressed as a man.
Jack nuzzles up against an elderly lady so as to steal her earring. She expresses disappointment when he abruptly flees. He also “nuzzles” the cleavage of a woman-shaped shop sign. A number of the wenches and ladies (including Angelica) wear clothing that showcases ample cleavage. And the mermaids, who are naked and formed as human women from the waist up, cover themselves with only arms, wet hair or scenery. (Their femininity is still obvious in quite a few scenes.) When the mermaid Syrena is tossed out on land, Philip immediately strips off his shirt to cover (most of) her.
After Philip steps up to protect Syrena, Jack quips, “I support the missionary’s position.” A pirate refers to a sex act as “churning butter.”
Though blood flow is almost nonexistent, there are numerous scenes of high-action swordplay, stabbing, gun shots and general mayhem. A central character is impaled with a broadsword through his back. (Grisly sound effects accompany the scene.) We see this man’s flesh and internal organs stripped away by swirling water, leaving only a grasping skeleton behind.
A brutal-feeling fight wages between the men and the fish-women. One mermaid is painfully pinned to the ground by a sword through her tail fin. And she’s then roughly slapped, pushed, manhandled and imprisoned by Blackbeard and his men. The captain talks of torturing her (chopping off her fingers) to make her cry. (These scenes are troubling both for their violence and for the fact that it’s being perpetrated against a nearly nude female.) Scores of mermaids bare their fangs and attack men in a boat, dragging them into the deep. In the distance we see the creatures sink another ship full of screaming men. Sailors throw barrels of gunpowder into the water, and we see the mermaids blown up into the air.
Men are killed by gunshots in a battle between the English and the Spanish. A soldier tumbles from a high window. A zombie is stabbed in the chest (to no effect). Other zombies are crushed by a large falling stone column (to effect). Blackbeard cuts at a voodoo doll with his knife—opening a wound on Jack’s chest. He also torments Jack with a candle flame to the doll’s head. Angelica has her palm slashed open by a poisoned blade. Jack is hit in the head with a rifle butt. Barbossa tells of the time he had to cut off his own leg. And he callously leaves a man to die when he jumps overboard. We see that Jack has bound and gagged a judge before impersonating him.
A handful of uses of “h‑‑‑” and one use each of “d‑‑n” and “b‑‑tard.” God’s name is misused several times.
Rum, rum and more rum pours down many a pirate’s gullet from bottle, cup and … peg leg. We see drunkards in a pub. And when, during a battle with authorities, a large barrel of wine is punctured, Jack pauses to guzzle from the spouting stream.
Jack addresses the English king, “Your heinie.” Several scenes are decorated with partially decomposed human and mermaid corpses. The zombie crewmen appear to have had their lips sewn together with rough hemp.
The past three entries in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise have all had several things in common: dark grotesqueries mixed with beautiful women, handsome but scruffy men, rollicking adventure and a general attitude of “devil take the consequences as long as I get me pile o’ booty.”
Now make it four movies all together. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides boasts swords, rum, revenge, zombies, fights with nude mermaids and dark magicking. If Jack is the personification of these films, then a short conversation he has with Angelica sums things up. She yelps, “You haven’t changed!” To which he responds, “Implying the need.”
Still, here you’ll also find one thing that’s unexpected. Peel away several musky layers of tattered linen and raw-throated “arrrgghs,” and you’ll find something that resembles a soul. Not a hearty Spirit of Christmas Present soul who blesses the house one and all, of course. But rather a small, squinty-eyed piratey soul who lets out a contemplative half grunt before drawing sword from scabbard.
At least this soul bothers to take some time to wonder about right and wrong. At least characters long for salvation for the wicked and make self-sacrificial choices to protect the innocent. At least an authority figure states, “Only God can grant eternal life.” And at least Captain Jack Sparrow blanches at the idea of some poor victim dying for the bounty of another.
Now, this meager bit of heart doesn’t mitigate all the other rough-skinned folderol onscreen. But it does add something positive. It helps us care a little more about what happens to those trapped in this apparently never-ending theme park ride-inspired tale. And that’s something that hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past.
Perhaps it could even motivate some young, modern-day pirate with a poster of the dreadlocked Cap’n Jack on his or her wall to pause with a half grunt ever so often. And that is worth at least a half-hearted “yo ho ho.” I just wish we could all skip past the mermaids.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.