Confession - When Pirates of the Caribbean - On Stranger Tides hit theaters, I avoided it like the plague. I immensely enjoyed the adventurous and, at times, magical Curse of the Black Pearl, but when the loot started rolling off the ships bough and directly into the studio's wallet, Disney was compelled to follow the Hollywood code... which are more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules:
If a quality product makes enough coin, don't leave well enough alone. Pillage and plunder the consumer's pockets until they're no longer willing to pay!
Personally, I reached that point after seeing At World's End, which was so bloated, boring and directionless, that I was ready to walk myself off the plank. Sitting alone on the couch wearing a couple of eye-patches would have been a better way to pass the time. But, Depp's performance as 'Captain' Jack Sparrow was enough of a carrot-on-a-stick to get me to check out the first Pirates film in a post-'afterthought trilogy' era, despite the fact everything about it practically screamed 'failure' from the gallows. After all, most of the original cast is nowhere to be seen, and reviving a franchise after it supposedly ended is never a good idea. Terminator 3, Robocop 3, Jurassic Park III, Alien Resurrection, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor all illustrate this point very well. But once in a great while, there's a turn of the tide and an exception proves itself against the rule. The question is, does On Stranger Tides valiantly emerge from the depths, or does it merely float lifelessly on the surface? The answer may very well surprise you...
If there's a single thing that the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean flick needed to do, it was providing a single dominant plot thread that the other moving parts could graciously weave their way in and out of. After all, the reason why At World's End turned into a 3 hour disasterpiece, was the fact that every character's side-story was treated as if it were the primary campaign. This resulted in a new twist occurring every 5 minutes, and by the time the end credits rolled I didn't even know what the hell I had just watched! Fortunately, On Stranger Tides learns from its predecessor and forgoes the unmanageable scope for a story that's clear and concise.
In an attempt to beat the Spanish in an expedition to the fabled Fountain of Youth, King George II captures the resourceful Captain Jack Sparrow to be their guide. When Sparrow learns that his old nemesis Captain Barbossa is now in service to the King's navy and will be heading the expedition, he makes a typical sloppy-yet-grand exit that only he is known to be capable of. Of course also in typical Sparrow fashion, he escapes his problem only to run straight into the arms of another, and unsurprisingly, it's a woman he's scorned long ago. Angelica (Penelope Cruz) does what the King and Barbossa could not, and places Jack aboard a ship that's also in the race to lay first claim to the Fountain. Although Jack typically laughs and makes jokes in the face of danger, finding out whose ship he's actually on gives him reason enough to pause and contemplate his next step - Blackbeard (Ian McShane), known as the most dangerous pirate in the world, thanks to a sword he wields that grants him supernatural powers, wants first dibs on the Fountain to ensure a prophecy that foresees his death at the hands of a one-legged man doesn't come to fruition.
It's not exactly brilliant, but it is the most thoughtfully developed plot since Curse of the Black Pearl. I'm sure there are people that may want to argue that point, saying the complexities of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End inherently make them seem like more care went into their scripts. That sounds good in theory, sure, but I personally feel that a well thought out script is more about providing an experience that can have multiple moving parts without being weighed down, and that's exactly what On Stranger Tides was able to accomplish. Not only that, but it was able to do so with the franchise's shortest runtime yet, a full-yet-brisk by Pirates standards, 136 minutes. Nearly every minute is utilized to enhance both plot and character development, and this time around, the development of the new characters is crucial to telling the story at large. There is the occasional twist throughout the film, but none of them felt as if they were trying to turn the film upside down merely for the sake of doing so. No, every piece of the puzzle fit well enough that I didn't find myself rolling my eyes or losing interest in any particular character or on-screen event, no matter how minute.
And speaking of the characters at play, that brings us to the largest critique made against the film thus far - That it feels more like 'The Adventures of Jack Sparrow' than a true Pirates of the Caribbean flick. I can certainly understand why it seems that way on paper, and I can't deny that Sparrow is a bit more prominent than he ever was. For some of you this is great news as this has been Depp's most memorable character to date, and for others, the 'drunk and on drugs' Sparrow shtick is probably getting old. Your enjoyment of this film is probably going to hinge on how much you still love or hate the unsure-footed swagger of the Captain, but if you're still a fan or willing to look past the bias you've accumulated against the eye-shadowed pirate over the years, you'll find this film to be much more than merely a stage for Disney to prance their favorite live-action money maker on. Sparrow is prominent, yes, but wisely not dominant. Any time the other central cast members are on-screen with Depp, you want to give them just as much attention, if not more, than Jack Sparrow. Pirates fav Geoffrey Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, and needless to say, the man hasn't lost his touch. With Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom unwilling to reprise their roles so they could pursue other projects, there was some concern that bringing Barbossa back into the mix was an attempt to band-aid the loss the audience might feel, by attempting to provide us with every recognizable face that was left. This couldn't be further from the truth however, as Barbossa's integration is just as I alluded to before - vital. The real treat performance for me this time around however, was Ian McShane as Blackbeard. I'm admittedly somewhat biased here, as I was a huge fan of his work as the devious Al Swearengen on HBO's Deadwood, but considering how much of an epic bad-ass he was on that show, it should come as no surprise to anyone how perfectly suited he is as the most feared pirate on the planet. Hell, in my opinion, he's easily more enjoyable to watch than that CGI squid-face Davey Jones, and Barbossa? Well, I don't think anyone could best Barbossa as the best villain in the franchise but McShane's Blackbeard comes pretty close.
The only performance I wasn't really wowed by, was that of Penelope Cruz. It could just be my imagination, since Depp, Rush and McShane are capable of, and do deliver higher caliber performances, but she just wasn't as captivating as the rest of the cast mentioned above. That said though, if one were to make comparisons between what Penelope and Keira both had to offer the franchise, Cruz wins by a long shot. There's more passion, conviction and fire in her portrayal of Angelica as opposed to Knightley's Elizabeth. One thing that Keira does continue to have a leg up on is her ability to emote in a way that makes the audience feel for her character, but this is due more to the fact that Angelica is written to be more than just a 'replacement' for the previous female lead. Angelica is different than Elizabeth in every perceivable way, and it's all for the better.
As far as the final product as a whole, believe me, I'm just as surprised as you that I'm sitting here and writing a glowing review for this film. Honestly, this is the best film in the franchise since the original - The script is well written, the film is expertly paced, the swashbuckling has returned to more practical form, the new villain nearly gives Barbossa a run for his money, and after all is said and done, I'm quite excited to see what the next film is going to have in store for me. On Stranger Tides has done the impossible in bringing the series back not just in name, but in the spirit of the original... let's just hope the creative minds behind the franchise don't follow the same 'bigger is better' route the previous two movies took, but if On Stranger Tides is any indication of what's yet to come, count me in!
Oh, come now. This is a live-action release by Disney, and to call this 1080p AVC encoded transfer (2.40:1) anything less than flawless would be borderline mutiny. The technical presentation here is just as you would expect for a Pirates flick - There's no artifacts, banding, or edge enhancement to speak of. Despite some very demanding cinematography - A foggy London, an underground pirate hideout, sailing on Blackbeard's ship at night, infiltrating a Spanish camp, or hanging out with some mermaids under the moonlight - Contrast remains immaculate and black levels stay deep and inky, never bordering on crushing shadow detail. Colors are especially bold when the film actually allows them to shine, most notable of all being the lush jungle greenery that rests behind Whitecap Bay. The perception of depth and detail is also breathtaking more often than not, which again, should come as no surprise to anyone who's familiar with how the franchise has fared on Blu-ray thus far.
However, it should also come as no surprise that some very minor digital scrubbing has been applied to present us with a filmic-yet-clean look, undoubtedly to cater to the audience members that love the scenic eye candy the franchise has provided in each installment. Don't throw yourself overboard just yet though... this scrubbing is not a fault of the transfer, and as a matter of fact, I highly doubt it was done specifically for this release. Not seeing the film theatrically I can't say anything for certain, but the last two Pirates films seemed to have the same visual qualities as On Stranger Tides, so I'm guessing this was done in post-production. The end result is a picture that looks 'clean', and thanks to the sparing usage of some minor DNR (again, I stress minor), there's still an impressive amount of detail left for us to enjoy, since some of the fine film-grain structure has been left intact. I'm not an advocate of any kind of digital noise tampering... in fact, I'm very outspoken in my reviews about it. However, the amount that's been applied (or hasn't been applied) to this film doesn't offend me in the least. Simply put, this is yet another stunning transfer from the company that goes for the gold with each release they bring our way.
Listen up, ye scurvy scallywags! The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track on this release is a plentiful bounty of audible delight!
Seriously though, lame pirate banter aside, this is one hell of an impressive lossless track. The dynamic range is wide, the sound effects - for swashbuckling action, fire, and even for subtle environmental ambience - are totally immersive, the dialogue is perfectly understandable no matter what craziness is happening on-screen, and the score is explosively valiant. Speaking of explosive, that's probably the best word to also describe the LFE side of things. It really packs a wallop whenever the on-screen action dictates it should, but it's not overpowering just for the sake of being so. No, the LFE has enough restraint to hit you hard without drowning out the other sound design elements. Much like the video presentation on this release, the world 'flawless' comes to mind. Well done Disney, well done.
If there's an obnoxious trend that Disney is trying to start, it's forcing you to buy the 3D release so you can get all the mouth-watering extras, which is infuriating. Some people don't possess the proper 3D hardware, and there are those (like myself) that don't even want it in their home. So why, Disney, must you force me to pay extra for a disc I have no intention of ever playing? I'm willing to pay a premium price for great supplemental content, but let me choose if I want the 3D disc or not... don't just force it down my throat.
Moving along to the actual content on these 2 discs (one a Blu-ray copy of the film, the other a DVD), there's one practice Disney has recently begun to implement that I'm absolutely in love with - The ability to skip the fourteen bajillion trailers that begin as soon as the disc starts spinning. Sure, we've been able to press the 'Top Menu' button to skip past them before, but when you're sitting in a dark room, straining your eyes to find that particular button on the remote can be a hassle. So what do some of us do? We press the 'next chapter' button a bunch of times until we get to the menu, which needless to say is a frustrating process. Now, you never have to move your thumb off the directional wheel! A menu pops up as soon as the first trailer/advertisement plays, giving you the option to skip to the next trailer/advertisement, or go straight to 'play (the) movie'. It seems that Disney has been listening to the woes of their consumers, and I hope this is a feature that continues on all their releases from here on out. Moving on...
-Audio Commentary with Executive Producer John DeLuca and Director Rob Marshall - This is a light commentary track, both in tone and on detail. DeLuca and Marshall have a great time praising the work of everyone involved in reviving the Pirates franchise, but the detail they provide on the background of the film as well as its production is lacking, at least when compared to most other commentary tracks. They do discuss some of the difficulties of filming and how some ideas came to fruition and made it into the final product, but there's a vast wealth of information they don't delve deep enough into. All one has to do is look at most of the notes in regards to the film's casting and production on Wikipedia, and compare it with what's talked about on this track to understand that this could have been much more informative than it actually was. On a positive note, at least they're not boring us with unenthused, monotone drivel.
LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean - A few scenes played out by LEGO counterparts. It's a nice novelty, but a featurette or documentary would have been nice. Oh, wait... we have to get the 5 disc 3D set for that...
Bloopers of the Caribbean - A standard blooper reel, and chimes in at around the 3 minute mark.
Also included is Disney Second Screen, which allows you to sync the film with your computer or iPad to enjoy additional content while you're watching. It's a really neat feature for sure, but again, this release is seriously lacking in any worthwhile extras, and the growing trend of getting a fair chunk of your bonus material via the web is disappointing, if not alarming.
I'm still surprised I'm saying this, but On Stranger Tides is the best Pirates film since the first... and that's coming from a guy that went into it with a major negative bias (we can thank At World's End for that). Learning from its predecessor, sub-plots are utilized to enhance the overall story as opposed to competing with it, and the scope of the overall story has been scaled back. McShane's Blackbeard is the best villain since Barbossa, and although Depp's Sparrow is more prominent than ever, he isn't allowed to overpower the film. It's refreshing to see On Stranger Tides bring the franchise back to its roots, thankfully letting the series once again embrace a 'less is more' motif (when compared with the 2 previous films). As a result, I'm once again interested in seeing what trials and tribulations await Captain Jack Sparrow and the scoundrels that are sure to accompany him on his next adventure.
Coupling this surprising return to form with an immaculate A/V presentation, I'm tempted to highly recommend this release... but in good conscience, I just can't do it. Releasing separate bare-bones and premium content releases is one thing, but using the premium package to force us into supporting Disney's 3D marketing agenda? Sorry Disney, but I can't bite. In the future, please give those who aren't interested in 3D the option to pick up a 2D-only package that includes all the bells and whistles. Recommended.