At two hours and 15 minutes, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth film in Disney’s multi-billion dollar franchise, is the shortest in the series but it still feels endless; overproduced, overstuffed, easily distracted and needlessly convoluted. A new director, a trimmed-down story and some key cast changes do little to make this installment ship-shape. The fact that it’s in 3D - because everything is in 3D now - doesn’t do much to liven up proceedings. The new technology can’t help these cardboard cut-out characters or the theme-park world they inhabit, with all the extra effort reduced to thrusting the pointy end of various scimitars and cutlasses at the screen, now and again, in order to make the audience jump.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few thrills to be found. Broadway musical director turned filmmaker Rob Marshall (Chicago) takes over for Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three movies. Marshall’s ability with staging and choreography is apparent in an early pell-mell chase scene as Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow escapes from the red-coated army of a bloated King George II (Richard Griffiths) along, above and below the cobbled streets of London. Shortly thereafter, Sparrow crosses swords with his old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a cunning Spanish privateer with flashing eyes and a heaving bodice, in a fluidly-staged fight scene played out among the barrels in the basement of a grotty inn. Later, when Sparrow is back on the bounding main, his ship comes under attack from a shoal of beautiful mermaids, with long fishy tails and sharp vampire teeth, in a sequence that contains the majority of the film’s jumpy moments.
As for the plot (not that it matters much), Cap’n Jack is kidnapped by the beautiful Angelica and dragged on board the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship belonging to the fearsome, voodoo-practising Blackbeard (Ian McShane) on a quest to find the fabled Fountain of Youth. The buccaneers are being trailed by the Spanish Navy, the English redcoats and Jack’s deceitful old nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), all of whom want to get their hands on the magical waters.
Its the stuff that happens in between; the chattering dialogue, cyclical plotting and repetitive exposition, that makes the latest Pirates such a bore. It’s all swash and no buckle. When audiences are meeting most of these characters for the fourth time, why bother constructing a story around them? It’s far easier to have the special effects and the production design, both of a high standard, do the job of telling the story. The biggest draw in this franchise remains Depp’s flamboyant Cap’n Jack, a mincing gadfly in eye-liner and floating scarves with a steady supply of nimble reactions and throwaway quips. He gets decent support from newcomers Cruz and McShane, with Geoffrey Rush reliable as always as the duplicitous peg-legged pirate Barbossa. A sub-plot involving a romance between an earth-bound mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and a heaven-bound monk (Sam Claflin) adds nothing to proceedings but time.