Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 3 stars (out of 5)
Kung Fu Panda 2, 1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
It's a common opinion that we have Steven Spielberg to blame for the beast that is the summer blockbuster, what with his “Jaws” being the watershed film of what's very much become its own genre. But Spielberg has never made movies like “Kung Fu Panda 2” or “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” two brand new, back-to-back summer sequels that epitomize the uninspired, dollar-driven traditions of this more-is-more season. Not even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” arguably Spielberg's worst movie, can match the pomp or needlessness of these two strikingly similar behemoths, whose 3-D visuals can't mask the transparency of their common purpose. In the traditional sense, neither are superhero movies, which, year after year, have dominated summer slates throughout the past decade. But both are so dutifully constructed by familiar factory standards it's a wonder the 3-D glasses don't reveal bar codes in the bottom corners of the screen. Stories do not progress or evolve in these movies; they are merely crammed, like poorly mixed mortar, between heavy, brick-like action setpieces so redundant your mind clicks off as they unfold. To say that this is simply par for the course when it comes to summer films is admitting defeat. With eyes wide and mind all but empty, you may well go home happily convinced that you got your money's worth, but, I assure you, that wasn't the sort of pig-in-mud response audiences had when walking out of “Jaws.”
This isn't to say that there's no fun to be had in these movies, and I'll be the first to admit that the latest “Pirates” installment scratched my summer-adventure itch with its jungle locales, rousing music and fearsome, well-imagined villains. When comparing it to “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Pirates 4” is by leaps and bounds the better film, if only because there's evidence that at least a few human hands took part in its creation. Thankfully branching away from the storyline of the initial trilogy (folks like Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are nowhere to be found), “On Stranger Tides” pins the focus on good ol' Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a character whose trademark arrogance has become little more than a reflection of the filmmakers' pride of property (Need a fun drinking game? Take a shot every time Jack's name gets a god-like utterance in Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot's script). Seeking out the Fountain of Youth for reasons that are quite literally all over the map, Jack is joined by Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a duplicitous Latina and former nun he once bedded and corrupted. The Coyote Ugly vixen of this Very Jerry Bruckheimer affair (directed, unremarkably, by Rob Marshall), Angelica wants the Fountain's waters to save the soul of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), her evil pirate daddy who practices voodoo, cheats death and controls his monstrous ship with flicks of his cursed broad sword.
The film is punctuated with such preposterous piles of exposition that you might laugh if you weren't so busy attempting to process it all. Again, the talky bursts of plot are caused by action-sequence overload – the need to put money on the screen trumping the need to spin a clear and compelling yarn. The first 40-odd minutes play like a clip reel of outtakes – generic fights and chases strung together with bits of commentary to make sure everyone's up to speed. Such has become the most discouraging aspect of these big-budget moneymakers: noisy action is now so terribly commonplace that filmmakers no longer feel the need to make it exceptional. So long as it's in there, the job has been done. But, my god, am I ever sick of feeling entirely empty as a junkyard's worth of swords clash across the screen, a sloppily edited horse chase drags on for eons, or a cheeky remark caps off an escape as indiscriminate as a grain of sand. It isn't until it gets over a massive heap of these very blunders that “Pirates 4” begins to validate its existence. Blackbeard proves a deliciously odious baddie (the series has always excelled in that arena), and when it's not preoccupied with making a racket, the film succeeds at delivering slivers of Jack's brand of stream-of-consciousness randomness (an odd cliff-side argument involving a voodoo doll and Russian Roulette turns out to be more involving than any of the derring-do).
Strong antagonistic forces – which, in “Pirates,” also include nifty predatorial mermaids – are, in fact, the only strengths that straddle our two summer specimens, as apart from its villain, “Kung Fu Panda 2” hasn't a redeeming quality to boast. If “On Stranger Tides” is lazy, then this wholly uncalled-for family flick is inches shy of comatose. Also featuring a bumblingly competent lead character who's much more beloved by the filmmakers than the audience, it strains to tell a story no one cares to know, and pits it against a barrage of action that no one will ever remember. Po the Panda (Jack Black), whose obesity and appetite are still being grossly exploited in pursuit of everyman-sitcom guffaws, is suddenly catching onto the fact that his noodle-making goose of a father isn't his real father. Thus, a comfy origin story can support the present action, only neither the past nor the present have even kiddie-sized value. Every iota of Po's identity quest is sucked dry of sincerity, its abandoned-infant, you-had-the-power-all-along trajectory not even attempting to nudge the edges of the cookie cutter (you hear that, world? Adoptive parents are people, too!). And lest we at least find some diversion in the excitement of the driving conflict (Po and his butt-kicking buddies, the Furious Five, must fight to stop the eradication of Kung Fu), every action sequence is of the mindless, “Pirates” sort, with animated limbs flying but zero interest as to what or who they strike.
The nasty nemesis and sole inventive element is Lord Shen, a vengeful, terrifically rendered peacock voiced by Gary Oldman. A grown-up brat who concocts the Kung Fu-killing machine and also murdered Po's parents (oh, don't give me that spoiler nonsense), Shen is the kind of villain Disney classics became known for, and his snazzy fighting techniques (swiping tail feathers that double as blades) offer visual dazzle that can no longer even be found in the formerly fetching Asian environments (the 2008 original, you'll remember, was quite a looker). Perhaps the strangest of the movie's myriad faults is that returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger – who couldn't seem more studio-pressured if they wrote Shrek into this DreamWorks product – make Po such a narrow-minded focal point that they alienate him from his own movie. The Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Seth Rogen) have been whittled down to convenient window dressing tossed the occasional bone of a line, and Po, who's written to hog the spotlight with the same gluttony that drives his hunger for dumplings, comes off as both greedy and unsure of how to handle the burden of carrying a film. Once a nominally successful example of the fat buffoon bewildering the “regular” folks, his humor now seems miles beyond the other characters' very comprehension, as every joke, like this movie, goes over like a lead balloon.
Do you feel gloomy reading this? I feel a little gloomy writing it. Movies like these, even “Pirates” with its occasional canon-fire of stimulation, generally fail to inspire even hearty, worthwhile critical responses. They operate with such minimal personality that one winds up writing not about the films themselves, but about the bottom lines of the shameless forces that propel them. Surely, don't blame Steven Spielberg for the pirates and pandas that are robbing millions of you blind as we speak. In fact, Spielberg might well be our cinematic salvation this summer, serving as the producer of “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams's mystery-shrouded sci-fi flick that seems to feature the now-nostalgic hallmarks of hits like “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” Spielberg may have invented the summer blockbuster, but certainly not the summer blockbuster as we now know it. At the end of the day, at least his had teeth.