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Pirates of the billion-dollar franchise 

Johnny Depp returns for a fourth 'Pirates.'

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Part of the charm of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, which seems determined to march on into eternity, is that its protagonist, Capt. Jack Sparrow, has always seemed not so much like a true buccaneer himself, but rather a little boy playing pirate with what he can crib from his big sister's closet (including the eyeshadow). He's not particularly vicious, nor given to conquests of the flesh, and his skin and overall hygiene are metrosexually immaculate. He, like we viewers, seems to be in on the cosmic joke of the whole enterprise, and yet, like us, the vortex of the pirate life sucks him in, too.

The fourth installment — this one sans Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, among some other jettisoned regulars — is more flouncy pirate antics interspersed with moments of intense action, mostly of the Mermaids Attack! variety. If you liked the first three of these movies, you'll probably dig "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," even with the cast rotation and with a new director (Rob Marshall, famous for helming "Chicago") in place of Gore Verbinski. For better or worse, it's mostly more of the same, savvy?

This go-round we find the crowns of Spain and England launching simultaneous expeditions to find the Fountain of Youth. The English are determined to enlist Sparrow, who has in his possession a map like a rolled-up placemat that will lead to the famed bubbler of immortality. Sparrow, though, takes one look at the captain the Brits have lined up — a peg-legged Geoffrey Rush, back as Barbossa — and decides he'll have no part in it. He eludes the redcoats long enough to fall in with Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who Shanghais him to guide her crew to the fountain, in order to thwart a curse upon her father, the nefarious Blackbeard (Ian McShane, marvelously).

Now Blackbeard! Here's one ink-hearted bastard! Huddles in his quarters all hours until a mutiny boils up, then quells it with black magic and homicidal cruelty! While Sparrow flirts with Angelica and generally acts as though he'll live forever, Blackbeard knows he'll be dead within days unless he drinks from the fountain, and he's willing to torch, shoot, murder, manipulate and generally pirate his way there. The process requires a victim (in that the fountain may only transfer years of life from one person to another), two silver chalices and a fresh mermaid tear. And therein we find one of the only visceral delights of "On Stranger Tides," namely that the mermaids are seductive, bloodthirsty and relentless — calendar models crossed with sharks attacking in formation. When your trick-or-treaters this fall show up shuffling in fish tails and baring fangs, you'll know which Disney franchise to thank.

The movie is fun enough in places that it may remind you fondly of that first "Pirates," way back in 2003, when no one knew this would be a $3 billion ticket factory and counting. The rapturous brass and galley-boom percussion of the score still conjure on ocean onrushing; Depp still delivers every line with a wink in his voice; the script burbles with bits of effervescent wordplay; and the makeup still makes everyone except Sparrow look as though they've been soaked in saltwater and hung on a mast to ripen miserably. The ingredients are all here for a rollicking picture show. If it seems like less than the sum of its parts, it's probably only because you've tasted this recipe thrice before.

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