It happens to every film franchise eventually -- even our new favorites -- and we, the hardcore movie-addicts must simply chalk it up to a hazard of this particular hobby, shrug our shoulders, and move on. Here's how it works:
Movie #1 is expected to be a typical summer season blockbuster, but it's safe to say that nobody expected Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to A) make THAT much money, and B) turn out to be so, well, not sucky. I'd go as far to assert that Pirates 1 has grown to become one of my very favorite adventure films. And I'm old! Repeat viewings with the smoothly entertaining film became sequel cravings, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer was more than happy to comply.
Movie #2 and Movie #3, created in tandem and virtually indecipherable without its partners, offered a lot of the same formula, but sprinkled in some truly creative touches here and there. Stuff that kept us giggling or surprised (or confused) or curious. But lots of weird, wild, colorful STUFF is tossed about in Part 2 (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and Part 3 (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), stuff that makes the frankly over-plotted material seem a whole lot lighter, smoother, and satisfying. Distant cousins of the first film, perhaps, but still cut from the same cloth known as director Gore Verbinski. My affection for the stuff that works in the Pirates sequels acts as a counter-weight for the stuff that clearly does not, and such was my frame of mind as this "true fan" settled in for Part 4, also known as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
The title itself is a weird bit of irony: this fourth chapter is easily the most generic, obvious, and pedestrian entry of the series; some of the "stranger" ideas mentioned in the title would have done this flick a whole lot of good. To its credit, Pirates 4 does accomplish what I've been hoping for: it offers a new Pirates chapter that works perfectly well as a "stand-alone" adventure movie. Much of what hurt Pirates 2 and 3 was that they were so firmly beholden to their numerous characters and labyrinthine plot contortions that much of the fun was sapped from what should have been simple "pirate adventure" movies. Perhaps a few isolated chapters, a la James Bond, could give Captain Jack Sparrow a few new angles.
Alas, no. At least not this time out. It pains this ardent supporter of the series to admit that, while it's hardly an atrocious sequel like that third Mummy debacle, On Stranger Tides seems more than content to simply go through the well-established motions, only this time we get Johnny Depp's Captain Jack front and center, which sounds like a lot of fun ... but it really isn't. An early scene in which Jack explains all sort of breathless plot exposition to his old pal Gibbs (Kevin McNally) reminds us that Sparrow is like Bugs Bunny: he's a reactor, a trickster, a guy messing with the way the story SHOULD go -- but not here: Jack is now our goofy central hero, and while Depp is, as always, a solid hoot here and there, he too feels like Pirates 4 is a fun but inevitable paycheck for all involved. Geoffrey Rush? Nope, sorry. Peg-legged, dry, and saddled with a clumsy subplot we know only through screenplay hearsay. Oh, this time they're all chasing the legendary Fountain of Youth, because why not? They haven't used it in the series yet. Now they have. It's a McGuffin you won't care about when it arrives.
Not helping matters is that director Rob Marshall, new to the series and ill-fitted in every way, films action like it's courtroom drama and dialogue scenes like they're cooking shows. Art direction, costume design, makeup and digital effects are all perfectly fine across the board, yet On Stranger Tides begins to feel like a slog 30 minutes in and it only perks back up in random fits and starts. Despite Hans Zimmer's familiar (but still rousing) action score, the moments of alleged mayhem are stagy, clunky, and, for the most part, fairly underwhelming. Tossed onto the screen as diversionary tactics are pirate zombies, gorgeous mermaids, and Ian McShane as the legendary Blackbeard -- yet those tactics are held mostly in reserve for the whole film. Weird. Even worse is the doe-eyed, mush-mouthed Penelope Cruz as Sparrow's semi-partner in crime; the lovely lass fits in Pirates about as well as Jack Sparrow would fit in Resident Evil.
While certainly not a total loss -- longtime fans may give it a break, young kids will undoubtedly love it, Depp has some weirdly funny one-liners -- Pirates 4 is proof that it's outrageously difficult to balance "something new" with "something that worked thrice before, to the tune of a jillion dollars." Parts 2 and 3 may have been over-plotted and rambling, but this is the first Pirates flick that feels just sort of ... there. Diverting, loud, occasionally amusing, instantly forgettable, and less than what we expect from this series.
And yes, I'll be back for Part 5.