Raucous and as slow and nutritious as Heinz ketchup coming out of the bottle, Disney’s fourth installment of its theme park-based movie series is like the previous two, though a tad more coherent. Replacing director Gore Verbinski with director Rob Marshall (Chicago), and removing the romantic leads played by wispy Keira Knightley and equally wispy Orlando Bloom, neither of whom is missed here, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides searches for the Fountain of Youth, finds more mysticism and gets religion. What began as an innocuously ghost-storied boat ride through the pirate-laden Bayou at Disneyland in 1967 has become a flat franchise based on characters no one could possibly care about. Pirates 4 is a big, long bombastic bore.
Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow, catapulting a supporting role into the leading character, which is like making Star Wars about C3PO, and he’s joined by a couple of pirate captains seeking Ponce de Leon’s mythical Fountain of Youth. After some antics in London, where he first meets with Barbossa, played again by Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech) and gone legit by joining the British navy, Captain Jack’s off on his quest, accompanied at times by a cross-dressing, double-crossing, devout Catholic first mate who may or may not be Blackbeard’s child. The character is portrayed by Penelope Cruz and I couldn’t understand half of what she said. But to be fair, I couldn’t make out half of what any character said (and neither, probably, will you). Not that it matters.
Blackbeard is played by veteran actor Ian McShane, the best thing about the movie, making the most of his role as the fabled pirate, who is to Pirates 4 what Tilda Swinton’s White Queen was to Narnia; the most interesting, if evil, character by way of being the most consistent. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whom I interviewed after the release of the second movie, remain at their best with light humorous banter, but with Jack Sparrow at the center, as against providing comic relief, the movie sinks to the bottom like a mermaid in a nosedive. Sparrow is an aimless and schizophrenic protagonist, and the lack of anyone sane, relatable and rational drains the picture of its purpose; why seek to preserve a bunch of unwashed and inarticulate malcontents speechifying about nonsense?
Add to that competing teams of preachy Christians, carefully positioned crosses, and an anti-climactic climax, on top of emaciated mermaids with fangs like something out of Piranha 3D and scenes of ecclesiastical redemption that feel more like the prolonged end of a visit to a long-winded relative’s house, and the nihilistic series’ finally delivers what it promises: nothing. The 3D, which exists for a few contrived, non-organic scenes of swords pointed at the screen, is not worth the extra money. Worst of all, the big reveal, the Fountain of Youth, never comes. It ends up as a foggy swamp which Cruz’s character falsely calls “beautiful”. What we’re left with is a band of croaky old pirates in orange tans and globbed with black eyeliner that seem more in line with The Da Vinci Code than an exotic cinematic adventure. Without much in the way of looting, comely wenches and derring-do, the dark series has always been more of a horror franchise mixed with absurdism and a splash of romance. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides adds religion, tries too hard, and overloads what’s already a leaky boat. Skip it and you won’t miss a thing.