New pirates, new ship, new treasure — same old Jack Sparrow. After a trilogy that hauled in US$2.7 billion worldwide, Pirates of the Caribbean relaunches with On Stranger Tides, a fresh start for the buccaneer-blockbuster franchise starring the franchise’s one indispensable ingredient — Johnny Depp as Captain Jack.
The new movie jettisons some characters — the trilogy’s co-stars, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, whose story wrapped up at the end of 2007’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. It brings back some in new guises — Geoffrey Rush as Jack’s foil Barbossa, trading in his pirate garb to sail on behalf of the king. And it introduces Penelope Cruz as Jack’s old flame, daughter of the pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
With Jack’s beloved ship, the Black Pearl, in a strange state of dry-dock, he and his mates sail in search of the fountain of youth aboard Blackbeard’s terrifying vessel, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Hollywood rarely messes with a good thing to this extent, but the filmmakers are banking that audiences will be eager to follow in Jack’s wake as he storms into uncharted seas.
“I’m thinking that people will like it, because from the first second, we went well out of our way, each and every one of us, to bring something new and very fresh to something that already has kind of a backpack filled with a trilogy in it,’’ Depp said at the Cannes Film Festival, where On Stranger Tides had a premiere last weekend before heading into theaters worldwide beginning on Wednesday.
“So we wanted to deliver something to the people that was expressly made for the people, sculpted for the people, with them in mind,” Depp said, adding with a smirk: “So if they don’t like it, it’s their own fault.”
Unlike the trilogy that grew out of 2003’s blockbuster The Curse of the Black Pearl, the new Pirates installment is a stand-alone story, producer Jerry Bruckheimer said.
Still, even before On Stranger Tides hits theaters, Bruckheimer has a script for a fifth Pirates movie in the works. That sounds like a commander confident he is on the right course, even before leaving port.
And Bruckheimer is confident — though he still heads into the debut of his latest with trepidation similar to that he felt before Black Pearl opened eight years ago. Back then, there had not been a successful pirate movie in decades, Depp was a consistent box-office dud and critics were snickering at the prospect of a movie based on a Disney ride.
“I’m still worried. Because you never know if the audience, where they’re going to be or what they’re doing or what they’re going to want to see,” Bruckheimer said. “The problem you have is the expectations of other people. ‘Well, it was disappointing. It wasn’t as big as the third one,’ or this or that. And you have to deal with all that. I know it’s a good movie. I know it’s going to do OK, but you don’t want to deal with all the other stuff that they build around it.”
The Pirates overhaul went beyond the cast. Chicago director Rob Marshall took the helm after Gore Verbinski made the first three movies.
Bruckheimer, Marshall and returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio streamlined the Pirates universe to put the focus squarely on Jack and his main mates. And they introduced a range of new supernatural elements, including predatory mermaids and a ship run as much by sorcery as maritime competence by Blackbeard.
“It felt like a beginning in a way, with so many new characters, especially a female pirate,” Marshall said. “That was really a huge element for me, because I thought, OK, now we have other colors for Jack Sparrow to play against. A villain like Blackbeard. That felt very new.’’
The filmmakers did not have a hard time enlisting new recruits.
McShane, who has had a late career surge playing nasty villains such as the ruthless opportunist that he portrays on his Western TV series Deadwood, was eager to embody a figure as big and bad as Blackbeard.
Depp and Bruckheimer have hinted that they love Jack Sparrow so much, the Pirates franchise could go on indefinitely, like James Bond, if they keep coming up with stories that interest them.
Critics may wonder how long fans will stay interested, but the buzz for On Stranger Tides seems to assure the sequel will put up huge numbers on opening weekend.
“Sometimes the more skeptical, cynical side of the audience or the press sort of go, ‘Come on. Four films. Enough’s enough.’ And I go, ‘the Bond franchise is 23 films old, and they still sell,’’’ Rush said.
“With Captain Jack, I feel like there’s much more to be had,” Depp said. “There’s much more fun to be had. As long as the stories, the scripts are good, with filmmakers like Rob Marshall, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
There is only one sure thing that could sink the franchise.
If Depp jumped ship and did not come back, Bruckheimer said he would not try to retool it to continue the voyage without him.
“It’s over. It’s done,” Bruckheimer said. “He created the franchise, that character. Made it come alive. He is Pirates of the Caribbean.”