Watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, newly available on Blu-ray, it’s hard to believe the 2003 original was such a surprisingly fun summer blockbuster. Pirate movies in general were basically box office poison and basing a feature-length movie on a theme park ride seemed preposterous. But several hundred million dollars later, and an Oscar nod for Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, everyone was clamoring for more adventures. On Stranger Tides is the fourth film in a series that, while still an international phenomenon, has grown increasingly bereft of good ideas. It huffs and puffs, with one absurdly over the top action set piece after another. But even though it’s shorter than the other sequels, it drags under the weight of a ludicrously inconsequential plot.
This convoluted mess concerns a painfully slow “race” to discover Juan Ponce de León’s fabled fountain of youth. Sparrow (Depp, of course, this time coasting without a shred of inspiration) finds out that he is being impersonated by a female named Angelica (franchise newcomer Penelope Cruz). The movie shamefully dispenses with the potentially interesting idea of a female Captain Jack almost immediately. It turns out Angelica, a former love interest of Sparrow’s, is the fearsome pirate Blackbeard’s daughter. Blackbeard (Ian McShane) is a voodoo master capable of zombifying his crew members. Blackbeard wants to find the fountain, but so does longtime Sparrow rival Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Blackbeard enlists Angelica and Sparrow to aid him in his quest, trying to beat Barbossa to the punch.
None of it amounts to more than a loud, messy bore. Mermaids are encountered (their tears are a vital ingredient for the fountain of youth to have the desired effect), huge battles are fought, and supernatural powers are displayed. But after a promising beginning in London with Sparrow escaping the King of England and leading a wild, fiery horse chase through cobblestone streets, the movie heaves and sputters as it tries to gain traction. But an endless procession of slam-bang action sequences do not add up to a compelling story. Then again, On Stranger Tides grossed over one billion dollars worldwide in its theatrical release so I guess somebody liked it. And it’s not over. A fifth Pirates film has been confirmed for the summer of 2013. One can only hope the filmmakers can concoct some fresh ideas for a change.
The technical aspects of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides are not a concern. In fact, this is one of the most impressive visual Blu-ray presentations I’ve ever seen. Even in the darkest, dimly lit nighttime scenes, detail is extremely strong. Daylight scenes are even better, with bold colors bursting off the screen. Every inch of the intricately detailed pirate costumes is well defined. This is a wonderfully sharp picture, with nothing to complain about. The set and costume design, as well as the visual effects, are so fully realized, the high definition presentation needed to be as close to flawless as possible. Disney has met those requirements.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is, if anything, even better. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the entire movie is headache-inducing sonic overkill. The movie has an insanely active soundscape that weighs heavily on the ears after two hours plus. That said, the Blu-ray presents all that fury in an utterly flawless manner. All channels are utilized to their fullest, with crystal clear, resonant dialogue always rising appropriately above the din. Hans Zimmer’s typically effective score rings out as well, cutting through the layers of effects. Whether sailing stormy seas or trouncing across lush tropical land, the mix creates a convincingly enveloping environment, bombarding the viewer with sound from all directions. This is definitely one to put on to wow your friends or annoy your neighbors.
In a disturbing strategy, Disney has issued Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in two Blu-ray configurations. The one I reviewed is a two-disc set containing a relatively barebones Blu-ray and a standard DVD. The Blu-ray contains a fawning commentary by director Rob Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca (guys, shut up already about how cool you think the 3-D version is!). That’s the only significant feature, the others being a cute but very brief blooper reel and a short “Lego Pirates” waste of disc space.
I understand the market for 3-D. Having a separate, more expensive package with a 3-D Blu-ray makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the five-disc Blu-ray release of On Stranger Tides not only includes the same two discs mentioned above, along with a 3-D disc and a digital copy – it also includes an additional 2-D Blu-ray containing tons of extra features. I think it’s really unfortunate that consumers with no interest in 3-D have to pony up anyway in order to get the extra supplemental features that would traditionally have been included with the 2-D Blu-ray release. Hopefully this doesn’t become standard practice for blockbuster releases.