On Stranger Tides is the fourth voyage in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but only the second time I happen to have climbed aboard. I've seen the first film, 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl, and that was solely because it earned Johnny Depp his first Oscar nomination. For me, Depp's performance as Captain Jack Sparrow was the only reason to see a film based on a fun park ride.
It's my understanding that the two sequels – Dead Man's Chest (2006) and At World's End (2007) – became longer and more confused. On Stranger Tides clocks in at an unnecessary 136 minutes but it's plot – a race between Sparrow, the Brits and the Spanish to discover the Fountain of Youth – is followed easily enough.
And if, like me, you happened to skip #2 and #3, you won't be too perturbed by the changes the producers have made, starting from the top down. Director Rob Marshall (of Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009) fame) replaces Gore Verbinski at the helm, while original crew members Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have also been cast adrift. But for those who like consistency, Geoffrey Rush returns as Sparrow's nefarious nemesis, Captain Barbossa, effortlessly stealing scenes and chewing scenery.
New shipmates include Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane. Cruz's Angelica, a one-time convent girl whom Jack converted to a less than pious life, provides some sassy sparring for Sparrow and evidence (and relief for Disney?) that Jack Sparrow plays for both teams and not just the one we've always suspected.
McShane, however, is less successful. On paper, the Brit actor's casting as the much feared Captain Blackbeard sounded perfect. But apart from some deployment of the dark arts, McShane's villainous pirate is far less intimidating than his foulmouthed saloon and whorehouse proprietor, Al Swearingen (from TV's Deadwood).
There's also an attractive young priest (Sam Claflin) along for the ride, presumably because Orlando “eye candy” Bloom isn't? The priest happens to fall for a mermaid, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), pronounced 'Serena' (like the tuna); a mermaid's tear is required in a ritual once they reach the Fountain.
Syrena's capture provides the film's scariest (for youngsters) sequence; first resembling scenes from a Piranha film, before morphing into the dolphin slaughter from Oscar-winning doco The Cove. But like many a Disney live action film, there's death in On Strangers Tides though very little actual blood.
But I don't mean to be churlish. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is an enjoyable enough high seas adventure, steadying if not advancing a popular franchise, and I've no doubt fans who enjoyed the first three films will be on board with this fourth installment.