Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is centered on one of those antique mythological movie quests — in this case, the search for the Fountain of Youth. That’s a fitting premise for a blockbuster franchise that now risks treading on thin ice by trotting out its fourth chapter. After all, isn’t it the dream of every big-budget sequel to seem as fresh and new as the one before it? And to ensure that the franchise itself stays eternally youthful? A sequel like On Stranger Tides, however, feels like an antiaging tonic that’s being forced on the audience.
Early on, a platoon of British redcoats plucks Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow from a coach and deposits him in an ornate sitting room, where they bind him to a gold-leaf chair. While waiting to be interrogated (about what, he’s not certain), Captain Jack jumps forward, a few inches at a time, and tries to grab the cream puff that’s sitting on the table. That’s a vintage Jack Sparrow moment: His life hangs in the balance, and all he cares about is the sweet pastry in front of him. Jack, the dreadlocked rummy pirate who never says exactly what he means, is a bit of a decadent dessert item himself — a tasty, overstuffed confection, sugary on the inside. But consume too much of him and it isn’t good for your arteries. When Jack, trapped in that royal chamber, comes up against King George II (Richard Griffiths), a rotter with the face of a gigantic pink baby, the two are so flamboyant that the scene carries a charge. Then Jack escapes, leaping through the room like a ? demented Musketeer, and the coach chase that follows is just as brisk.
That’s about where the fun ends, though. In the past I would have said — I have said, quite often — that I wish that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies would cut down on the ghoulishly hyperkinetic CGI and nonsensical plotting. Well, be careful what you wish for. On Stranger Tides has little in the way of jousting skeletons, acid-trip desert dream sequences, or over-the-top plot twists. And frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever longed more for excessive CGI and nonsense. Basically the entire film consists of Jack traveling aboard the run-down death ship of the ? sinister pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), all to reach the island that houses the legendary fountain. Meanwhile, the peg-legged Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), working for King George, heads for the same destination. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), who has taken over from Gore Verbinski, On Stranger Tides is so straightforward yet plodding that it puts the old back in old-fashioned entertainment.
Watching this lead balloon of a tall tale, in which you can see around every corner, I actually began to wish that, say, Russell Brand had been handed the role of Jack Sparrow, or had at least played his even less sane brother. Jack, more than ever, is now front and center, the focal point of every scene, and the result is that he’s become less of a jester and more of a colorless expository hero. He ticks off the story for us, point by point, instead of standing to the side lobbing little verbal bombs at it. Depp’s delivery is still amusingly sozzled, but the performance has lost any trace of surprise or merry deranged zing. The more Jack says, the less funny he is.
On Blackbeard’s ship there’s a mutiny, which doesn’t lead anywhere of note, and after a while there’s a mermaid, captured because her tears are needed to activate the fountain’s magic. She’s played by Astrid Bergés-Frisbey with all the intrigue of a model in a French perfume commercial. There is also a great deal of turgid scene-chewing devoted to the issue of whether Angelica (Penélope Cruz), Jack’s ”feisty” new love interest, is actually Blackbeard’s daughter. Cruz, rather than enticing, is testy and one-note, and Jack doesn’t seem all that sparked by her. McShane, at least, performs with his usual homicidal gleam — he fires up every scene that he’s in — but the overly strenuous romantic backchat keeps stopping the movie dead.
Everyone gets to the lush green island, and then?very little. More traveling around and talking about nothing. Will Jack, at knife- and gunpoint, take a flying leap off a humongous cliff? Will the Fountain of Youth actually work? As a filmmaker, Marshall has a singular knack for stripping questions like these of even their most basic propulsive interest. On Stranger Tides isn’t nearly strange enough. Its one real act of piracy is stealing away your excitement. C