It's hard to find a way into reviewing Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment in the blockbusting Disney franchise, maybe because the movie is so exactly like what you'd expect: overlong (two hours and twenty minutes), overstuffed (with at least four separate beats that could count as endings), and extremely loud (the insistent, inescapable score by Hans Zimmer, he of the patented Inception BRAAAHHHM!). Watching it is less an experience than a faint—yet earsplitting!—reminder of experiences that you once had.
Oh, yes, there's Johnny Depp as the mincing, perpetually half-drunk Capt. Jack Sparrow. And darned if he's not still being pursued by his pirate nemesis, Capt. Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now sporting a peg leg and working in service of the King of England. Some of the supporting players have changed (a moment of silence here for Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, the octopus-faced villain of the second and third movies), but the familiar atmosphere of dank ship holds and rusty astrolabes prevails, as does the piling-up of ever more hectic naval battles and CGI-augmented set pieces. This is also the first Pirates movie to be filmed in 3D, which means that a lot of the seagoing clutter—swords, skeleton hands, cartloads of flaming coals—gets shoved into our faces with an enthusiastic frankness reminiscent of the early days of the medium.
On Stranger Tides—directed, for the first time in the series, by Chicago's Rob Marshall rather than Gore Verbinski—does kick off with a lively chase sequence in which a captured Jack Sparrow, brought in chains before the English king (a memorably fey Richard Griffiths), manages to pull off a chandelier-swinging, cream-puff-stealing, double-horse-and-carriage-straddling escape through the streets of 18th-century London. But sprightliness gives way to turgidity as the main plot kicks in: it seems the dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) needs Jack Sparrow's know-how to locate the Fountain of Youth. So he enlists his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame of Jack's, to seduce him into joining them aboard Blackbeard's ship, The Queen Anne's Revenge. Meanwhile, Barbossa follows in hot pursuit of the escaped Sparrow, while the Spanish Armada attempts to reach the storied fountain first and stake its claim.
Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley have been replaced by an even more insipid couple: a Christian missionary (Sam Claflin) and a captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who periodically grind the action to a halt by gazing trustingly into each other's eyes. In the earlier Pirates films—especially the first one, which I remember now with a perhaps too-burnished fondness—Depp's Sparrow acted as a kind of shipboard jester, popping up to crack wise from the sidelines. At this point in the series, Depp is being asked to carry the whole film on his shoulders. He appears in virtually every scene, and even plays his romantic moments opposite Cruz with semi-sincere angst, which makes the audience nearly as uncomfortable as it makes the captain. (I much preferred when we could choose to believe that Sparrow was secretly gay.) Depp's charm carries him a ways—even if his eyes occasionally betray an I'd-rather-be-surfing distraction. But Jack Sparrow the protagonist lacks Jack Sparrow the onlooker's genuine strangeness. His Errol Flynn dash, Falstaffian cowardice, and rock-and-roll debauchery no longer seem like character traits; they're more like markers of brand identity.
More than anything, this kind of elephantine "summer" blockbuster now registers as a miracle of sheer logistics. I found myself spacing out during the swashbuckling sequences, marveling at the months of grinding labor, the countless wall-size spreadsheets that must have been required to round up all these extras on green-screen sets, costume them, block them, supply them with food trucks and coffee urns and port-a-potties, and then film (in 3D!) and computer-animate and color-balance and endlessly bloody market this whole sensory onslaught. For a series so steeped in supernatural mumbo-jumbo, Pirates of the Caribbean displays remarkably little sense of wonder (and a little bit less with each successive installment). Except for one moment in the climactic Fountain of Youth scene—when a single drop of enchanted water moves around on Sparrow's hand independently, as if it were sentient, while he watches in amazement—I never once thought, wow, what a magical place I'm being invited to visit. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 has CGI-animated water everywhere, but only that one little drop to drink.