(AP Photo/Disney, Peter Mountain) By Betsy Sharkey LOS ANGELES If not for Capt. Jack Sparrow there would be absolutely no fun to be found in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” the latest edition of Disney’s waterlogged franchise. But Johnny Depp, back again as the swashbuckling miscreant who favors guy-liner and gold, somehow manages to keep this ship of fools afloat. But just barely. With Rob Marshall newly at the helm, the hope was for a significant course correction after the bloat and confusion of 2007’s “At World’s End.” Though just why the studio turned to a director who has been struggling since helping “Chicago” win a best picture Oscar nearly a decade ago, is stranger than the tides (To wit: “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Nine.” I rest my case). It seems his chief recommendations are that A) he’s a really nice guy, something not to be underestimated in Hollywood, which is not the nice-guy capital of the world, and B) he knows his way around sequins and show-stoppers. You can see how that might translate as “Pirates” has long favored flamboyance in all things. Unfortunately, being fashion forward and light on your feet isn’t enough. Simply put: “On Stranger Tides” is still not seaworthy, nor Sparrow worthy for that matter.
At least director Gore Verbinski, who launched the enchanting whimsy of the first “POTC: The Curse of the Black Pearl” in 2003 only to be upended by the rough waters so often churned up by sequels and threequels had the good sense to make an exit before completely running aground. There are some amusements in “Tides,” which is ever so slightly better than its predecessor. Particularly grand is a whiz-bang early number that evokes that brief, shining moment when the franchise was first riding high. It involves Capt. Jack, a hanging offense, a double-cross, a pasty monarch with a pastry buffet (both abundant) and a king-sized dining hall filled with chandeliers and staircases just made for swordplay and foul play. It helps get things off to a fast start. The newest shipmates include Penelope Cruz as Angelica, a former lover of Capt. Jack whose paterfamilias is none other than the villainous Blackbeard, Ian McShane doing his witty wicked thing. She’s a lethal beauty who has a winning way with a rapier but suffers far worse battles with the bad lighting, which can be the only explanation for the fact that Cruz looks more sullen than sultry most of the time. The fresh fish come in the form of Astrid Berges-Frisbey as Syrena, an ethereal mermaid with a come-hither look and a nasty bite (she’s part of a mermaid coven with “Jaws”-ian/Jungian issues so scary); and a soul-saving hunk of missionary love in Philip (promising Brit, Sam Claflin). The old hands are led by Sparrow’s nemesis, Geoffrey Rush once again embodying the hygiene-challenged Barbossa.
(AP Photo/Disney, Peter Mountain) Depp, as I mentioned, is in top form, Capt. Jacking his way along, charming the socks off of everyone with those mischievous, ever shifting, slightly winking, always twinkling eyes; the ironic smile exposing a few gold teeth that somehow have always suited him. A cameo that puts Depp across from his inspiration for the character, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, as lad and dad locked in a conspiratorial conversation is pure pleasure at least for the 12 or so seconds it’s on screen. Most of the film’s two-plus hours is taken up by the hunt for the legendary Fountain of Youth, a story “suggested” by the Tim Powers novel that gives the film the second half of its name and Blackbeard his zombie crew; the script is from Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who have been there from the beginning. Not surprisingly, everyone wants a piece of the action, so the seas are soon crowded with tall ships, some manned by the British with Barbossa carrying an old grudge. There’s Blackbeard’s boat with Angelica, Capt. Jack and the zombies, who frankly aren’t all that fearful, just a bit more motley than the average crew. Then to make things more complicated (one of the franchise’s fatal flaws), we have the Spanish, who show up early for everything and add another layer to the weird religious thread started by Philip and carried through the film. Finding the fountain is just the start; its powers can only be unlocked by … again, it’s complicated, but if I remember correctly mermaid tears, silver chalices, unfiltered water and a mixology degree are involved. Now if all that sounds like a promising place to work a lot of 3-D magic, then boy are you in for a major letdown. The Ds in this instance stand for dark and dismal and disastrously claustrophobic. The production design is strangely ancient, as if the actors stumbled onto a sound stage filled with old props. Even the Fountain of Youth, the object of everyone’s desire, looks as if it were carved out of gray Styrofoam. And that, mateys, is no way to steer a ship. Aargh.
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