I happened to watch the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides this weekend, courtesy of the little silver disk. (Now out on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and DVD versions. I saw the flat variety; outside of the principals thrusting swords at the camera, I don't think I was deprived of much.)
The picture's got everything: intrigue in the British court, treks through jungle swamps, swordfights galore, a beautiful and saucy female to entice Captain Sparrow, one action sequence close on the heels of another ...
It's a veritable treasure chest of visual splendors, which is the series' stock-in-trade. The whole 137 minutes is entertaining in its way, but not unlike watching a colorful, fast-moving parade: interesting (if frenetic) characters, plenty of flash, but minimal emotional involvement. One sequence passes before our eyes, then another. None of them seem to be heavily connected to the set-piece of ten minutes before. We're there to be dazzled, not emotionally invested. And story coherence is way down the list of PC's priorities.
Contrast all the pyrotechnics of Pirates 4 with any good animated film and you immediately see the difference: Dumbo's mother isn't a plot device, but an emotional fulcrum for the entire movie. Woody changes his attitude toward Buzz Lightyear; we're never sure what Sparrow's attitude toward Angelica even is. The Dwarf's actually fall in love with Snow White (and we know it)*, Captain Jack has nothing but insouciant one-liners for everyone he encounters. When the only love story that resonates, however faintly, is between two minor characters, you know there are some structural problems.
Tides exists to extend a lucrative franchise. Not deepen our understanding of Jack Sparrow and his shipmates.
* Even the 71-year-old, black-and-white pirate saga "The Sea Hawk" has more coherence and emotion than "On Stranger Tides," even as it shares the sword play and sailing ships, the British court double-crossings and hair-breadth escapes.