In the bloated world of movie franchises, the law of diminishing expectations is far more a blessing than a curse. A grade-schooler could do the arithmetic: The first film is a curiosity, the second a disappointment, the third a debacle, and by the time the fourth waddles into view, you've come to expect zilch.
Of course, that's precisely when the blessing kicks in. Anticipate nothing and, eureka, a very little can seem like a whole lot. In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the bloat has a new director, the camera has an added dimension, the cast has a fresh villain and the script (uniquely in this franchise) has something that bears a loose resemblance to a discernible plot.
Now apply the law and, ahoy me hearties, No. 4 is surprisingly not bad - it's the little that's a lot.
As always, there's Johnny Depp too. When initially sighted, his portrayal of Cap'n Jack Sparrow - kohled eyes, gold teeth, braided goatee, foppish manner, fey accent, dreadlocks dripping more trinkets than a souvenir shop - was quite marvellously ensconced in the port of high camp. Inevitably, in later outings, the same shtick sailed off into the shallow waters of self-parody, and so it remains - stuck but at least constant, a vast bauble of a performance shorn of its marvel yet otherwise intact.
Early on, our pirate is spotted not on the blue sparkle of the Caribbean but in the grey hubbub of London. The spotting comes courtesy of a full-face, 3-D close-up stark enough to have us playing dentist to those gold incisors. Turns out that's the signature shot of the new helmsman - Rob Marshall, to be precise, heretofore much loved by Oscar (if not me) for his musical stylings in Chicago and Nine.
There, his choreography was mediocre and here it's no better - his work in the action sequences ranges from merely competent to tritely cluttered. And his taste for shrouding every second scene in murk, shooting through a glass darkly, makes for some serious squinting behind our plastic specs.
But he's a whiz with the close-up and, on a huge screen in three dimensions, the human face proves a worthy visual experience. Two human faces, each attractive and in flirtatious proximity, are even worthier, but more about that later.
Back to London, where Cap'n Jack soon lands in the company of King George himself (Richard Griffiths) plus that old foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush again, sporting a peg leg these days along with his usual complexion of mottled parchment). Watch this trio closely - Griffiths, Rush, Depp, all wigged up and vamping outrageously. Where lesser actors would merely chew the scenery, they swallow and then spit it back out for admiration. Together, these three set the performance meter at the level of a shriek, and there the needle stays for the duration.
As for that almost discernible plot, it involves a race to everybody's favourite destination - the Fountain of Youth. A three-way race as it happens: the Spanish in their galleons, Barbossa in a British vessel and none other than the wicked Blackbeard on The Queen Anne's Revenge.
Enter Ian McShane, whose stentorian tones are welcome anywhere - as in Deadwood, the guy is terrific at serving up the Devil in the voice of God. Enter too Penelope Cruz as Angelica, ostensibly Blackbeard's ill-sired daughter but, more to the point, a piratess to Depp's pirate. Seems they share a near-amorous history of "stirrings, not quite all the way to feelings," which brings us to that 3-D close-up, when their respective trinkets touch and, for a shining second, the air feels charged.
There's one other moment that approaches magic. A school of mermaids swims into the yarn, not the sweet genus but the sirens of yore, beckoning horny sailors down into the briny depths. The first to breach the water is Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), and that frame deserves freezing - the half-emerged creature is a pale vision of eerie loveliness. Alas, when she's netted and carted off in a casket-sized aquarium, the magic dissipates and the picture starts plodding again, all the way to its rather pedestrian climax.
So we're left to savour these seconds, to pretend that a little does go a long way. Yes, included in our brief is the ever-popular game of spot-the-cameo. Keith Richards is easy, and he even lingers long enough to deliver a pretty quotable line: "Does this face look like it's been to the Fountain of Youth?"
Judi Dench is much more of a challenge. Drenched in powder and pomp, the grand old Dame pops up in a London carriage. She's there in a flash and then, as quickly, gone, and her fleeting presence is exactly like the fleeting merit of this fourth galleon in the portly franchise: It prompts stirrings, not quite all the way to feelings.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
- Directed by Rob Marshall
- Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
- Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane
- Classification: PG