I much preferred the 2D Blu-ray presentation to the 3D, just as I preferred the first three films in the franchise to this one.

James Plath's picture

Johnny Depp recently said he wouldn't stop at four "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies if he continued to get the "stupid money" they pay him to be Captain Jack Sparrow. He would do it for his kids, he said, both of whom apparently like seeing their dad list from port to starboard as the slightly effeminate and perpetually inebriated pirate.

But Depp also said that "this whole thing about characters and character arcs and ‘finding themselves' and this and that, I honestly think old Captain Jack found himself a long time ago. I don't think there's any more room to--he can't go any further, I think he's hit a wall as it were."
We've already watched Captain Jack work through moral issues, relationship issues, bravery issues, buddy issues, and daddy issues. Depp has never been one to just show up and take the paycheck, but what he perceives about his character sounds about right to me. There were moments in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" in which Sparrow actually talked and acted like a normal person--as if normalcy was the only thing left for Depp to explore anymore. The same might also be said of the series. We've seen it all before. Substitute mermaids for zombie pirates or cannibals and Spaniards for British sailors, swap out Keira Knightley for Penelope Cruz, and toss in another fearsome "guest pirate" (Ian McShane as Blackbeard) and a new romantic subplot (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Sam Claflin), and you've still got essentially the same character structure. Instead of gold or Davy Jones' heart, it's the Fountain of Youth they're after . . . and the quest formula also starts to wear out its welcome.

I hope for the next installment, Depp (who says he was part of the writing process) and the others turn a few pages of Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates and look for something totally different and less Hollywood high-concept.

The only thing different this time is that Sparrow is a captain without a ship and without a crew. Still, if I hadn't seen the previous three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, "On Stranger Tides" I would have praised the film for being a fun, action-packed blockbuster with decent special effects and solid pacing. But I have to say that I miss Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

Rob Marshall ("Chicago") took over for Gore Verbinski, who thought a trilogy was plenty for this series, and Marshall does a nice job of sustaining the forward movement and integrating the mermaid love story without taking away from the main plot. Though this one is rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo," the most traumatizing thing for younger viewers (girls, especially) is that Disney demonizes mermaids this outing, giving them vampire teeth and a cat's hiss. Or maybe that just stands out like a sore flipper because "On Stranger Tides" doesn't seem to have nearly as many comic lines or moments as we've seen in previous installments. Tonally, it's more serious. If you take away the playful opening (in which Sparrow poses as a judge) and an initial exchange between Depp and Cruz, it all settles down into a more straightforward adventure.

The plot is also a little like a crow's flight. Captain Jack is in search of the Fountain of Youth, racing and later joining forces with Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who's turned King's privateer. Along the way they both realize they're in competition with the Spaniards and the terrifying Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Cruz appears as Angelica, a Sparrow par amour whose relationship to Blackbeard isn't totally clear--at least to Captain Jack, whose status aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge is also a little fuzzy. This outing there's less of an odyssey. Aside from the mermaids--one of whose tears is essential to accessing the Fountain of Youth--it's mostly swashbuckling of the double-crossing sort.

Blackbeard was terrifying enough in real life that it's surprising he wasn't given a more imposing presence here. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer thinks he's the most evil villain the series has seen, but if you take away his "enchanted" sword, he's not nearly as growlsome (yes, I'm coining a word here) as Davy Jones was. Speaking of growlsome, critics loved "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003) but loathed the sequels, with Rotten Tomatoes critics giving the first film a 79 percent fresh, the second a 54 percent rotten, and the third a 45 percent rotten rating. As for "On Stranger Tides," it fared even worse--a 33 percent rotten. Those marks are harsher than the ones from audiences, 86 percent of whom liked the first and second films, 74 percent of whom enjoyed "At World's End," and 61 percent who thought "On Stranger Tides" was a good movie.

I'm torn on this one. As I said, if I hadn't seen any of the other "pirates" movies, I'd be inclined to give this a 7 out of 10. The location filming and sets, the costumes, and the special effects all contribute to a believable historical atmosphere. The acting and direction are solid enough, and the action and adventure are sufficient. "On Stranger Tides" just doesn't have that playful matinee element to make the adventure tongue-in-cheek, which the first films managed quite well. From my point of view it's the writing that disappoints, and let's hope they get it right for the fifth film . . . which you know is coming.

The other issue swirling around the fourth entry in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise is the studio's decision to film in native 3D and market "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" as a 3D offering. Really, you can't blame Disney. Studios are like any corporation, having more in common with Jerry Maguire's lone client than with Jerry. As long as people willing to shell out up to 20 percent more for a 3D theater ticket and continue to "show them the money," Disney and other studios will keep making the films in 3D. From a financial standpoint it's a no-brainer. But from an aesthetic perspective, that's another story.

As a movie-lover my only criteria for 3D is the same as for any aspect of filmmaking: does its addition or presence make the film stronger? Does the part contribute to the whole in a significant way? Once again, as with many 3D movies I've watched, the answer--at least for me--is no. While there's a greater (and, I would say, more artificial-looking) depth of field within the television monitor, there are also very few "pop-out" moments that viewers associate with 3D. You get that sort of effect when Blackbeard summons the ropes aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge, when the mermaids attack, and when Captain Jack watches a cutlass pierce the door right next to his head. Other than that, the 3D effects are all contained behind the glass.

Overall, I found the 3D to be more of a distraction from the story than an enhancement. Having watched it once in 3D Blu-ray, I'm inclined to watch it in 2D Blu-ray in the future, because it has a more consistently appealing picture and it seems to me more compatible with the film's character.

There are still industry-wide problems with the MVC codec that show themselves as occasional aliasing and ghosting, with some scenes having more 3-dimensional depth than others. There were additional problems in scenes that were low-lit or near-dark. But in the daylight scenes shot on location in Puerto Rico and Hawaii? Everything looks gorgeous, with lush greens, deeply saturated blues, and a depth of field that makes those occasional long shots seem a little more vibrant. Skin tones are natural looking, and the level of detail and edge delineation is strong enough to hold with 3D separation. Despite some inconsistencies, it's a strong-enough visual presentation to please 3D lovers . . . if you don't go into it expecting a lot of "gotcha" effects.

I thought the 2D Blu-ray was the much stronger presentation, though. I would have given it a 9 out of 10, compared to an 8 out of 10 for the 3D. The detail gets picked up with more consistency and there are fewer compression problems--as in none that I noticed. Even the DVD looked a little more consistent.

"On Stranger Tides" is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen.

This past year, Disney's 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks have been something special, and the "wow" factor is here again in "On Stranger Tides." Rigging creaks, footsteps on planking heightens the senses, and all the speakers are consistently involved in creating an immersive audio experience on both the 3D and 2D Blu-rays. I don't have a single bad thing to say about the audio, which is dynamic in the quiet moments as well as during the explosive ones. Dialogue is nicely prioritized too, so that it's never drowned out by the music, effects, and ambient sounds. The 7.1 track is available in English on the 3D Blu-ray, with French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 options, but 7.1 French and Spanish on the 2D Blu-ray. An additional option are English 2.0 DVS on both HD discs, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

I was a little disappointed by the extras. Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca's commentary isn't as compelling as the tracks that convince me to see the film differently. There's a lot of back-slapping, too. Meanwhile, a making-of "Legends of On Stranger Tides" documentary (36 min.) offers the usual blend of behind-the-scenes footage and cast/crew interviews, with the one unique addition being shots of meetings to discuss the direction scenes might go. "In Search of the Fountain" (11 min.) provides a context for the adventure, for those who hadn't heard of Ponce de Leon and the legend of the Fountain of Youth, and a shorter featurette looks at Blackbeard and the Queen Anne's Revenge. The best of these short features is "Under the Scene: Bringing Mermaids to Life," which illustrates how live-action, design, and CGI combined to create creatures that could have looked cheesy as hell. Rounding out the bonus features are "Johnny vs. Geoffrey" (their 2-minute take on Sparrow and Barbossa) and five short deleted/extended scenes.

Disney is touting their version of BD-Live--Second Screen--which gives access to other feature content through an app that you download. But collectors will view such a thing as transient. This combo pack also contains a DVD and Digital Copy.

Bottom Line:
I much preferred the 2D Blu-ray presentation to the 3D, just as I preferred the first three films in the franchise to this one. But it's not as bad as everyone says. It's just missing the playfulness of the first films. I'd give it a 6.7 out of 10, though it's worth mentioning that "On Stranger Tides" still puts some of the old-time pirate movies to shame. Meanwhile, I know studios are telling us that 3D is the way we see the world, but to me it still looks as artificial as the old Viewmaster reels.


Film Value