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DVD review of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (***1/2) by Matt Anderson - Movie Habit
Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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“I am just as bent as ever. Hellishly so.”
- Cap’n Jack Sparrow

On Stranger Tides is a solid fourth installment in the adventures of Cap’n Jack Sparrow and this Blu-ray release proves its replay value.

On Stranger Tides: Blu-ray/DVD Combo
On Stranger Tides: Blu-ray/DVD Combo

Dead Men Tell No Tales

During the course of the Swann/Turner saga, Cap’n Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, The Tourist) was embroiled in an adventure not entirely of his own creation. He became entangled in the love story of two star-crossed lovers, a young woman of high society and the son of a pirate. As part of that epic story, Sparrow still managed to collect a highlight reel all his own. He fended off the black spot, outmaneuvered the infamous Davy Jones, gave the Kraken a bad stomach ache, regained - and lost - captaincy of his ship more than once, buckled his swash numerous times, and survived the land of the dead.

After all that, what’s a pirate to do?

Well, there’s something poetic about Cap’n Jack steering away from the Land of the Dead and setting his compass on the Fountain of Youth.

On Stranger Tides manages to find a whole new world for Jack to explore; it’s a world of mermaids, zombies, voodoo, Ponce de Leon, Blackbeard, and the aforementioned Fountain of Youth, all wrapped up in the same kind of complicated Machiavellian trickeries of the three previous Pirates movies. That’s to say, returning scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, working with story elements found in Tim Powers’ 1988 novel On Stranger Tides, have brought back the wit and goofy action set pieces that helped make the first three movies so endearing. Similar to the methodology behind the Indiana Jones series, the Pirates series has found its niche in using pirate lore and real history to underpin fanciful tales of adventure on the high seas.

On His Majesty’s Not-So-Secret Service

On Stranger Tides picks up a short while after At World’s End.

Sparrow once again makes a great entrance, this time in London. But to say more would be to say too much.

Complications arose while in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth during the between-chapters, but things pick up for Jack, somewhat, when he becomes a hired sword in the service of King George. And, unfortunately for Jack, his long-time sparring adversary, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech), is put in charge of the expedition.

Things are spiced up significantly with the arrival of one hot lass named Angelica (Penelope Cruz, Vanilla Sky). Hardly angelic, she serves as something of a love interest for Jack. Well, a no-love-lost interest might be a better way to put it. In a hilarious little bit of back story, it turns out Angelica was ready to take her vows at a convent when Jack Sparrow darkened her door, sullied her name, and did numerous other things to/with her. He had, he now claims, mistaken the place for a brothel.

Arrr, but there’s a bigger complication for Jack to contend with, more deadly than the mere wrath of this scorned woman. She also happens to be Blackbeard’s daughter.

Or at least so she says. She’s a mighty fine liar, so it’s hard to know where her life and reality intersect.

In any case, as played by Ian McShane (TV’s Deadwood), Blackbeard is exactly what he proclaims himself to be: A bad man.

A Refreshing Fountain

Perhaps the biggest change in On Stranger Tides is that this time around Jack’s heroics seem much more deliberate and intentional than the mostly haphazard antics seen in the previous chapters. Maybe his trip to World’s End matured him a bit; maybe he’s not hitting the rum quite as hard these days. Or maybe that’s one of the benefits of no longer being a supporting player in somebody else’s storyline.

Jack’s actually a very good pirate in On Stranger Tides and it’s a pirate’s life for him indeed. It’s also nice to see Keith Richards return as Jack’s dad, but his cameo is all too brief; it’s of the sort that takes on Obi-Wan Kenobi-like atmospherics.

Even with the fun of seeing Jack unleashed in his own adventure, there’s plenty of room for a dark side. Adding some interesting tones and textures is a subplot involving a mermaid and a Christian missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin, United).

The mermaid scenes generate a certain kind of eerie magic, but as beautiful as the mermaids are on the outside, on the inside they’re mighty sinister, with legends saying they seduce men then carry them down to the bottom of the sea and have them for dinner.

Not as dinner guests, but as dinner.

Given all the exotic story elements and colorful characters introduced in On Stranger Tides, the quest for the Fountain of Youth has effectively brought new life to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.


Blu-ray Extras

NOTE: The following is based strictly on the Blu-ray/DVD combo package. A more comprehensive 5-disc set, which also includes a 3-D Blu-ray, digital copy, and a second Blu-ray disc of supplemental features, is also available. And, for those extremely Sparrow-minded, a 15-disc, four-movie collection is also available, which includes digital copies of all four Pirates movies as well as a new Pirates-related short film, entitled Wedlocked, directed by James Ward Byrkit. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s also a single-disc DVD edition.

The centerpiece of the supplementals is a commentary track by director Rob Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca. It starts off slow and full of gushing comments about the cast, but it gets better as the movie rolls along and the track ends on a rather strong note. One particular omission is the absence of any comments regarding the incorporation of Tim Powers’ novel as the elemental basis for the screenplay.

There’s good and bad along the way. Marshall overuses the word “extraordinary” in describing cast members and other production elements, but it’s also clear he comes from an actor’s point of view rather than a more technical, directorial angle. Since the movie was filmed in 3-D, the numerous references to that aspect are warranted, but Marshall discounts the “in-your-face” side of 3-D as “cheap.” The problem is, on a populist note, those effects are the ones that truly grab the audience while the depth of perception side is less exciting, albeit worthwhile when done correctly.

It’s also appreciated to hear some nice tidbits such as the theatricality of the historical Blackbeard and his smoking beard, the intentional ambiguity of Philip’s fate, and the sly reference to the Pirates amusement park ride via the skeleton of Ponce de Leon. Marshall and DeLuca also make some really good notes about the mermaids, the production’s conceit in regard to their human/aquatic nature and the water line, and overlooked aspects of Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s impressive performance.

Bloopers of the Caribbean is a modestly entertaining 3 1/2-minute collection of outtakes. Nothing particularly earth shattering, but it’s fun from a fan’s perspective to see the on-set merriment.

Captain Jack’s Brick Tales is a five-minute collection of five LEGO animated shorts. In particular, the segment involving Jack capturing a mermaid includes some funny gags. All of the segments are nicely animated in the style of the LEGO video games. Overall, it’s cute. But it’s also a commercial for all those LEGO Pirates playsets and the LEGO Pirates video game.

Blu-ray Exclusives

The Blu-ray includes Disney’s Second Screen viewing option. A reflection of SADD (Studio Attention Deficit Disorder), the feature skips the built-in capabilities of Blu-ray technology and requires a download for iPad or PC. Purely in terms of presentation, Second Screen (which has also been used with Tron: Legacy, Bambi, and The Lion King) is a complete farce, the kind of novelty gimmick that seems to have been designed by an iFan more than a film lover. There is simply no reason for the supplemental content to be presented in this fashion - on an external screen that takes viewers away from the movie itself.

Making matters worse, the supplemental content gains nothing using this approach. The bulk of the content is production stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and concept art. There are also extremely short video clips - ridiculously short, as short as five seconds. And some of those clips are downright worthless, such as a nine-second clip that zooms out from a pre-production set model. All of this would have been better off as a simple, easy to navigate image gallery.

Arrr, even worse: The only reason this is a Blu-ray exclusive is because the disc is required to sync with the online supplements. Any pirate with an Internet connection can go to Disney’s Second Screen Web site, download the Web-based app, then manually navigate through a portion of the content. But to access it all, Second Screen needs to detect the Blu-ray disc’s signal.

Tied into all this are oppportunities to connect friends, likes, and Pirates content via Facebook and Twitter (although the Tweeting portion was not available at the time of this writing). The Facebook angle is kinda cute; different tasks garner virtual Disneyland tickets, leading up to the coveted “E” ticket. But it also entails giving Disney permission to co-opt your Facebook account and plunder it for future commercial treasure.

Ye be warned.

Picture and Sound

The (2-D) picture quality (presented in 2.40:1) is pristine, showcase material that presents all the fine details of the extravagant production.

The English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also a showcase example of multi-channel sound design. Also available are tracks in English 2.0 Dolby Digital, English 2.0 Descriptive Video Service, as well as French and Spanish versions in 7.1 DTS-HD High Resolution.

Subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.

How to Use This Disc

Enjoy the ride that is On Stranger Tides.