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At this point, the question to ask of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is not simply, “Is the movie any good?” But also, given that it represents an open-ended break from the usual trilogy format, “Can the franchise hold up as serial storytelling?” (And prove wrong Roger Ebert’s hand-wringing over the dearth of creativity implied by Hollywood’s sequel craze?) Along with The Matrix Revolutions and Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End delivered one of the most spectacular third installment flame-outs since the beginning of the modern summer blockbuster trilogy craze. So those two questions become especially pointed. And I’m happy to report the answer to both is at least a tentative “yes.”

Not surprisingly, the film’s greatest strength is once again its cast. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and, I regret to say, Pintel and Ragetti have departed. That leaves Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), his grey-bearded and fatalistic sidekick Gibbs (Kevin McNally), and Sparrow’s sometime-opponent-and-sometime-compatriot Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) in a race with a Spanish expedition, the villainous Captain Blackbeard, and each other to find the mythical Fountain of Youth.

Depp, as always, is first rate as Sparrow. (I mean, honestly. Who else, when given the task of concluding a film with dialogue shoe-horned in from a song for a ride at Disney World, can totally sell it?) Familiarity has served the character’s eccentricities well, and swashbuckling on through more films as a wily, half-crazed, 17th century version of James Bond seems well within the Sparrow’s reach. A subtle strength of sequels is shown here as well: Sparrow is a less morally compromised rascal this time out, and the ethical lines he draws would not be noteworthy were this the first time we had seen him in action. But because we’ve watched his behavior develop over the previous films, his choices carry additional substance and impact.

On the disappointing side, at least for me, Barbossa and Gibbs are sidelined for the first half to B plot scenes – though Barbossa returns in force later on with a moving monologue laying out why he’s hell bent on revenge against Blackbeard. I would think the interactions of these three – especially between the trickster Sparrow and the embittered-yet-determined Barbossa — would be the strongest character-based foundation from which to build an ongoing franchise. Sparrow needs a straight man, a foil for his reeling and bombastic nature to push against, and Orlando Bloom has never gotten the credit he deserves for ably serving in that capacity for three films. The retooled narrative community of On Stranger Tides is not a failure by any stretch, but the dynamic between the characters remains half-formed.

As for the newcomers, the most impressive is Ian McShane as the villainous Blackbeard. He brings a dry and cutting wit to the role, but is also unafraid to allow Blackbeard moments of genuine and unapologetic monstrosity. There’s also Penelope Cruz as Angelica, an old flame of Sparrow’s bringing a love-hate component to the story’s mix. Cruz performs ably enough, but while her relationship and backstory with Depp has its laughs, it usually feels more rote than vibrant.

Two other new arrivals include Sam Claflin as a brittle-yet-decent missionary and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as a captured mermaid. It’s to the credit of these two that their characters’ subplot arrives with much more emotional oomph than I imagine seemed possible on paper. Indeed, the whole cast is able to bring both weight and some good old-fashioned fun to a highly flawed script, thus allowing the film to clear the hurdle of basic artistic and economic worth. In fact, most of the movie’s failures — and they are not insignificant — stem from Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s writing. The logic of how characters come certain critical artifacts or knowledge is often poorly constructed, the rules governing the supernatural elements of the movie’s world are murky, and various plot ideas and devices – like Jack’s reduction to a deck hand, and talk of a ceremony necessary to retrieve  the water from the Fountain – are picked up and then randomly discarded. (Granted, this could also be a case of overly deep cuts to satisfy the studio’s time demands. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is added for the DVD.)

With all that said, none of these problems overwhelm the film. The movie manages to charge merrily past them and keep the train more or less on the tracks. At 2 hours and 17 minutes, this is the shortest of the four films, and aside from a messy first act the pacing is brisk and the scene structure is sound. (The highlight of the film is an extended and genuinely creepy second act sequence involving a night time hunt for mermaids.) Hans Zimmer’s music doesn’t get any break-out moments quite like before, but its return is welcome. And director Rob Marshall, while not equal to Gore Verbinski, does his job ably and demonstrates a few moments of genuine visual artistry.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is not a stunning argument in favor of turning these films into an ongoing franchise. But it doesn’t embarrass the notion either. The potential and all the pieces are there, ready to be put to use. Assuming the film justifies itself at the box office – and I don’t see why it wouldn’t — the filmmakers will need to hit the next one out of the park, both artistically and economically, if they really want to solidify the franchise. (A shake up of the writing team couldn’t hurt either.) But I’ll be ready and willing to fork over the price of a ticket should they decide to give it a try.

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