More of the same this fourth episode of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise may be, but at least it goes some way to redress the overblown, misjudged excesses of the ill-advised previous episodes and reclaim some of the sly fun from the first entry The Curse of the Black Pearl. Part of it is due to the change of director, with Gore Verbinski handing over to Chicago and Nine helmer Rob Marshall. A surprising but, on the face of it, adequate choice, as mr. Marshall's no-nonsense, no-frills, anonymous style allows the story and the performances to breathe, and his smartly uncluttered staging of action sequences makes everything easy to follow. Part of it is also due to the fresh narrative start of the new episode (with an obvious eye on further sequels): series regular screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio loosely adapt Tim Powers' 1987 novel On Stranger Tides to the world of Pirates of the Caribbean, with Johnny Depp's swooshing swashbuckler Jack Sparrow coopted into a frantic search for the Fountain of Youth led by the feisty Angelica (Penelope Cruz), in league with spooky pirate Black Beard (Ian McShane).
On Stranger Tides is again mr. Depp's show from the start, and there's rueful fun to be had from his sparring double-act with ms. Cruz, evoking classic screwball comedies. You also feel that the actor is a lot more at ease here than in the back-to-back Dead Men's Chest (2006) and At World's End (2007), but that Sparrow as a character is an old friend who fits like a glove and no longer holds any great secrets for him or for us. Which is why mr. McShane pretty much steals the show with his malevolent Black Beard (the strongest sequence in the film is his subdued, glowering entrance) and On Stranger Tides ultimately fails to be as rewarding as The Curse of the Black Pearl was back in 2003. Mr. Marshall was hired to keep the engine humming smoothly rather than radically reengineer it, and that he does, but it doesn't necessarily make it any more than what the series always aimed to be, in the image of the original Disneyland ride: harmless, disposable fun.
Starring Johnny Depp; Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane; and Geoffrey Rush; Kevin R. McNally, Sam Claflin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephen Graham.
Directed by Rob Marshall; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer; screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, based on the novel by Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides, and on characters created by mr. Elliott, mr. Rossio, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert; music by Hans Zimmer; director of photography (DeLuxe colour, widescreen, 3D), Dariusz Wolski; production designer, John Myhre; costume designer, Penny Rose; film editors, David Brenner, Wyatt Smith; visual effects supervisor, Charles Gibson.
A Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films presentation/production. (US distributor and world sales, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.)
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), May 17th 2011.