For the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, “well enough” happened just after the end of the first movie, where everything was still exciting and strange and it wasn’t quite so easy to remember that the inspiration for all of it came from a theme park ride.
Still, wishing for Hollywood to be intelligent about things is like wishing for a pirate to change his ways, and at least “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” offers a pleasant enough sail for the money. It’s nowhere near as good as the first one, true, but it’s also less of an insane fever dream than the second and third installments and has stretches where it’s genuinely entertaining.
Fair warning, though — not a single drop of that entertainment is in the movie’s first half hour or so. Yes, that’s where they’re setting up the paper-thin plot that mostly serves as an excuse for everyone to try and kill Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, but I can do it for you just as easily — various people are after the Fountain of Youth, Jack is shipless (again), the Black Pearl is at the bottom of the ocean, and Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa has somehow made nice with the British Navy (and developed what appears to be some sort of horrible skin condition). Anything else either doesn’t matter or can be picked up later.
Keeping in mind all that, my advice is to bribe whoever you’re seeing the movie with to let you sleep through that bit, and wake you up when Jack starts fighting the imposter (believe me, they’ll know it when they see it). That’s when Jack gets himself into very deep trouble (and not coincidentally when the movie actually starts getting interesting), and by missing it you’ve spared yourself several sequences that would probably have better luck in a slapstick comedy and some uncomfortable thoughts that maybe Jack isn’t nearly as interesting as we’d all thought.
It’s not precisely Depp’s fault, though. The Jack he’s created should be the spice of the dish, not the meal, and on his own his charm is spread thinner than it can handle.
Once the sword fight happens, however, the meat starts showing up. True, none of it is filet mignon, but the various exciting bits include a genuinely unsettling and impressive sequence with mermaids that will probably screw up every single memory you might have of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” There are also various sword fights, double crossing, triple crossing, a ludicrous bit with some palm trees that somehow still managed to be entertaining, several skeletons, and a handful of moments of actual peril. It’s rough-and-tumble entertainment, gone mere minutes after you’ve left the theater, but there’s enough thrill in the ride that you won’t be thinking about that while you’re onboard.
The movie fields not one, but two romances (technically three, but I’ll get to that in a bit). The first is moody and slight enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and the second hinges on the not-entirely-believable idea that Jack has genuine feelings for any human being but himself. Depp tries, but it’s half-hearted enough that when Penelope Cruz’s character asks “Can I trust you, Jack?” I wanted to shout at the screen “No, you fool! Don’t you know him at all?”
Besides, Jack only has one real love (other than himself). His heart belongs to the Black Pearl, and the only genuinely affecting emotion either he or Barbosa manage comes when they’re talking about their lost ship. It’s a connection as deep as the ocean, but it’s not enough to keep the inevitable second set of sequels floating.