Just when you thought a Disney theme-park ride couldn't possibly spawn four feature-length films, here we go again.
The latest in the mega-popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise offers another excuse to watch the incomparable Johnny Depp saunter across the screen as wily pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. Added to the cast are Penelope Cruz ("Volver") and Ian McShane (HBO's "Deadwood"), two solid actors who fit remarkably well in this jaunty pirate world.
But "On Stranger Tides" -- akin to its predecessors -- suffers from a bloated run time and pedestrian script. Couple those with frenetic action and eye-straining 3D, and most viewers will be left with headaches rather than thoughts about the film itself.
Remember Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, the lovelorn couple who played such pivotal roles in the first three "Pirates" installments? Well, forget 'em. There's nary a mention of the duo in "Tides." No, this one is all Jack (Depp fans, rejoice). Here Jack is taken captive by his former flame Angelica (Cruz) and the nefarious pirate Blackbeard (McShane) in order to lead them to the fabled fountain of youth.
In hot pursuit (alongside a handful of British soldiers) is the unpredictable Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has a personal vendetta against Blackbeard. Throw in Jack's loyal first mate, Gibbs (Kevin McNally); a handsome young cleric (Sam Claflin as Philip); a school of vicious mermaids (yes, you read that correctly); and a Spanish army, set to "blend" and serve.
Director Rob Marshall ("Chicago," "Nine") takes over for Gore Verbinski this go-round and lends the film a certain theatrical flair, not surprising given his experience with musicals and directing for the stage. "Tides" ratchets back the fantasy factor a bit (no squid-faced hellions here, thank you very much) and focuses more on classic pirate-inspired action. Swashbuckling and scenes on the open sea abound, while the costuming and set design are impressive.
There is an Indiana Jones-esque undertone to this "Pirates" flick, though Jack lacks the noble intentions or daredevil bravery of Indy. In fact, Jack is an atypical protagonist whose antics are certainly entertaining but not particularly inspiring. Cruz is a welcome addition and works well with Depp, while McShane looks almost born for the role of Blackbeard. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards returns in a cameo as Captain Teague (aka Jack's dad), offering one of the film's better lines. When Jack asks his gruff pop if he has ever been to the fountain of youth, Teague replies: "Does this face look like it's ever been to the fountain of youth?"
Disney has sure done a 180 in regards to mermaids. While the innocent Ariel awed audiences in the sweet 1989 animated film "The Little Mermaid," the mermaids in "Tides" are violent, fanged killers who lure men to their deaths and leave blood in the water. All mermaids in the "Pirates" world are apparently of this killer breed, with one sensitive exception (a mermaid named Syrena develops a relationship with the religious Philip in a strained subplot).
Despite the exhausting 141-minute run time, fans should stick around after the end credits for a bonus scene. Frankly, there is a childishness about the entire "Pirates" franchise that makes it difficult to take anything very seriously, and more Depp certainly doesn't mean more depth.
Yo ho hum.