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Feature


Following a failed attempt to rescue his former first mate, Joshamee Gibbs, (Kevin McNally) in London, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is brought before King George II (Richard Griffiths), who attempts to hire him as a guide in beating the Spanish to locating the mythological Fountain of Youth. Heading the expedition is Jack's old nemesis/comrade, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is now a privateer in service to the British Navy after losing his leg and his ship, the Black Pearl. Jack escapes, and discovers that an ex-lover named Angelica (Penélope Cruz) is gathering a crew under his name. Jack tries to confront Angelica, and is captured…again…and forced to act as her father, the ruthless pirate Blackbeard’s (Ian McShane) guide to the same mythological Fountain of Youth. Meanwhile, with Gibbs in hand, Barbossa starts his trip to the Fountain as well.

 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Despite not particularly liking the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films I vaguely respect them for their unique tone and style. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski created an unconventional multi-billion dollar movie universe, and my issues with the storytelling in their films can’t take that away from them. There’s also no way my disapproval can stop Bruckheimer and Disney studios from continuing to churn out these behemoth blockbusters, even when Verbinski has moved on, and star Johnny Depp has lost all interest. Apparently even the richest movie stars can still be bought. This fourth film in the franchise, On Stranger Tides was made under the promise of a focus on story over elaborate visuals. New director Rob Marshall, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio swore they understood the problems with sequels, which were put into production before scripts were finished. Elliott and Rossio pulled inspiration from a novel by Tim Powers (no relation) entitled ‘On Stranger Tides’ (also the inspiration for Ron Gilbert’s Monkey Island video games) in hopes of creating a basis for new characters, only bringing Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Hector Barbossa, and Kevin McNally’s Joshamee Gibbs (along with a couple of incidentals) back from the original series.

The sentiment was nice, but the reality is almost exactly what most of us were expecting from the series. Let’s be honest, no studio pays an actor $55.5 million dollars to be in a movie because they want to create something original and story driven. In true Pirates of the Caribbean tradition Elliott and Rossio’s script meanders googly-eyed between elaborate set pieces with supernatural gimmicks, witty banter that drones beyond the point of comfort, and convoluted double crosses. There is a plot, and it’s easy enough to follow, but the narrative is smothered in a superabundance of other stuff. There is just so very much stuff going on here. Following the apocalyptic excess that was At World’s End there aren’t many places for the set pieces and gimmicks to go, and the predictability of the backstabbing quickly flushes the whole thing down the drain into a parody of the original film, which is, assuming it isn’t a comment on the original, the worst place for a sequel to end up. Director Rob Marshall, an Academy Award nominee, brings his choreographic expertise, and his good sense with actors, but little else to the table in his effort to take over the reigns for Gore Verbinski. On paper the action scenes are rousing, full of precise motion, impressive stunts, and well-placed visual effects, but I found myself continually unroused, and at times even tired at the prospect of further swashing and/or buckling. It’s all expertly crafted, and especially dance-like, but things are so choreographed you can almost hear the steps as they’re counted off, leaving us with a predictable and particularly uninventive viewing experience.

 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Among the things I will always grudgingly respect about these films is their ridiculous sense of humour. I don’t always find it funny, in fact quite often find it obnoxious, but it’s often based in very British banter and live action Looney Tunes slapstick, rather than fart and penis jokes. It’s lowest common denominator, but a sort of anachronistic, 1970s friendly lowest common denominator. Clearly this sense of humour pays out better in foreign territories, as Stranger Tides cleaned up overseas, but it’s always nice to see something that doesn’t curtail to the base expectations of us unwashed ‘Mericans. The best comedy comes out of character, and I must admit that I my only interest in Stranger Tides pertains to the possibility of the further adventures of Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, mixed with the promise of him interacting with Ian McShane as an evil pirate. Barbossa is bereft of most of his most charming character traits, and left a limp noodle for the bulk of the film, but Rush’s ample abilities keep him at least nominally charming up to the turn. McShane is an expected blast of sardonic evil. It’s obvious that the writers hired him specifically based on his Deadwood performance, as Blackbeard is basically a supernaturally endowed, less salacious version of Al Swearengen. I do regret, however, that the two actors have very few scenes together, and that Blackbeard is never actually as frightening as Davy Jones was when originally introduced. I’m even left enjoying Depp’s shtick for the most part, following two films’ worth of character dulling. I didn’t $55.5 million enjoy it, but it was pleasant to enjoy the character again on any level. The production’s choice to dump the dead weight of Orlando Bloom and Kira Knightly is much appreciated, but their attempts at filling the romantic subplot void are embarrassing. Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey certainly look the part (they are very pretty people), but their relationship is a shoehorned afterthought that could’ve saved the film a valuable 10 or 20 minutes. I can’t imagine the teenage girls in the house were appropriately sated.

 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Video


Director Rob Marshall doesn’t have the same obsessive visual sense of Gore Verbinski, and Stranger Tides doesn’t feature quite the same degree of ornate decoration of its prequels, but he does a decent impression. He and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski also have a secret weapon in their arsenal that Verbinski didn’t – Red One and Red Epic camera systems, ensuring a highly detailed and smooth image, one clear of any of the even minor artefacts that go along with 35mm film. It was also shot mostly in 3D, but that’s incidental, as this 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is a 2D version. The short story here is that this disc looks entirely Mary Poppins, as in ‘practically perfect in every way’. Marshall’s cosmetic differences aside, this is still a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and it’s swimming (pun!) in detail, including layers of wardrobe, Baroque set design, production design knickknacks up the wazoo, and a whole lot of grimy and hairy faces. The Red cameras capture every element with almost impossible clarity, creating a clean, slick canvas for the dirty, fine textures to shine against. Marshall broadens the films colour palette further than the other films, which tended to feature relatively consistent colour themes. Marshall also embraces natural beauty a bit more than Verbinski did, and the lush foliage of the film’s third act is high among the transfer’s achievements. The sweeping helicopter shots of Hawaiian mountaintops are easily worthy of any number of BBC nature documentaries. The only ‘complaint’ I can muster in reference to this transfer pertains to the blends of some of the warm and dark elements, which thanks to the smoky ambience can be a little mushy, even slightly blocky, but only on occasion.

 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Audio


It is entirely unsurprising that I verify this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is overflowing with crisp, realistic, expressive stereo and surround sound. This is definitely reference level stuff. There’s no such thing as a quiet sequence in this mix. Besides Hans Zimmer’s endlessly cycling musical score, even the most plain dialogue heavy sequence is rocked with the grumble of the ocean, and the creak of various boat interiors. But there are some bigger moments, including Blackbeard’s introduction, where he brings the ropes of his boat to life and flogs screaming crewmembers around the channels, the mermaid hunt and its boat sinking post-climax, and the scene in which Barbossa and Jack bicker aboard a badly balanced ghost ship that sways with their movements. Zimmer’s music, with assistance from Rodrigo y Gabriela members Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero, continues its streak among the series’ most enduring elements. This time out Zimmer opens himself up a bit more to new themes, which is nice following the homogenous elements of the first three films. The sweep and scope of the score is not lost in the heavy mix, and is often even given precedence over effects, likely thanks to both the power of the music, and Marshall’s love of musical theater.

 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Extras


So I understand the theoretical value of Disney Second Screen, and all the other ‘second screen’ technologies that are taking the Blu-ray world by storm all of a sudden, but I cannot get any of them to work appropriately with my practically brand new Macbook Pro, and once again will not be reviewing this part of a disc’s extras. But hypothetically, let’s say this did work. Why would I prefer having only the option to watch extras on my computer or iPad? Not only does Disney run the risk of things not working, or not being compatible, but the viewer has to work for the extras. I’m willing to bet less than half the viewing audience cares about extras in the first place, and that half of those people are willing to put more than a second of effort into accessing extras. I’ve always had an issue with extras being limited only to PiP, but at least viewers with profile 2.0 players (which is likely the majority at this point) can simply hit a button to access those. With second screen, viewers need to download software onto another device, and ensure that they have that device and their player synced onto the same wireless network (assuming they have a wireless player, which isn’t a sure thing). Again, this is a cool option, but it should be an option. There is no other place on this disc to access the extras included in the second screen, which means they’re quite literally lost in the ether if, like me, you aren’t able to get them to work.

So from here I move on to the disc’s only other substantial extra, a commentary track featuring director Rob Marshall and executive producer/choreographer John Deluca. This is a low-key track, but a pleasant one, assuming the viewer can handle the wishy-washy anti-politics of its overall tone. Marshall and Deluca (who are incredibly hard to tell apart aurally) have almost nothing but nice things to say about everything involved in the production, and trip over themselves complimenting people. The track isn’t a waste, as there are definitely informative technical bits, and plenty of behind the scenes anecdotes, but the most interesting thing I was able to glean was the impression that Marshall was not really all that in control of the production. He reacts to many of the on-screen action as a viewer rather than a director, and in giving credit where credit it is due reveals how much influence Johnny Depp had over the production. Other non-second screen extras include a blooper reel (3:30, HD), five Pirates of the Caribbean Lego short cartoons/ads (5:20, HD), and trailers for other Disney releases.

 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Overall


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn’t as bad as I thought it would be…but it’s still a pretty lackluster effort. There are plenty of charming character interactions, and some laugh worthy moments, but the over-the-top action and special effects carry very little weight or thrill. This Blu-ray release features an eye-popping 2D transfer, and a consistently busy DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, both of which qualify as reference level. The extras are mostly delegated to the second screen app, which I couldn’t get to work. Hopefully Disney won’t continue putting all their special features eggs in a second screen basket in the future.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Disney Blu-ray screen-caps.


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