Chief Justice Michael Stailey could use a bottle of rum right about now.
"Did everyone see that? Because I will NOT be doing it again."
Oh, Rob Marshall…For a man who brilliantly adapted Kander and Ebb's Chicago for the screen in a way few could ever have imagined, you really stepped in it here. After four viewings (twice theatrically and twice on Blu-ray), I could go the rest of my life without ever seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides again. And for an unabashed lover of this franchise, that's quite disheartening.
Facts of the Case
It's a race The Fountain of Youth. The Spanish don't want anyone near it. The British don't want the Spanish to have it. Blackbeard's daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) wants its power to redeem her father's soul. Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) and Mister Gibbs (Kevin McNally) are the only two who know how to find it, and yet somehow everyone arrives at the same time. Oh, and they all have ulterior motives.
Let me preface this review by saying I recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End for the umpteenth time like an eight-year-old on a sugar bender. Warts and all, my love for this franchise is well-documented…which is what makes the following analysis so heartbreakingly painful.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is an absolute mess.
Those who had narrative issues with the previous two films are going to quickly develop migraines. Despite The Fountain of Youth being the driving force of this story, none of these characters really seem to care. The prologue indicates the Spanish have some ambiguous vested interest in The Fountain, but end up having zero impact on the story except as a means of getting our heroes from one action set piece to the next. Jack has been to Florida, apparently unable to locate The Fountain (even with Sao Feng's map), and returned to London to rescue Gibbs. The only reason he's involved in all this is because of a trap laid by former lover Angelica who's trying to use him to save the life of her infamous father who's prophesied to die soon at the hands of a mysterious "one-legged man." Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is working as a privateer for the British government, as a means to get revenge on Blackbeard (Ian McShane) to whom he lost both The Black Pearl and his leg (there's one mystery solved). Oh, and there's a ritual required to access The Fountain, which means we need to stop off at White Cap Bay and capture a mermaid, as well as locate Ponce de Leon's ship and abscond with two silver chalices. By the time we finally make it to The Fountain, everyone is more interested in kicking everyone else's ass, and the audience no longer cares. Adding insult to injury, The Fountain itself is a sorry excuse for a climax. Given everything we've seen from these films thus far, one would expect some highly impressive practical location enhanced by mind-blowing CGI. Nope. Perhaps the production team thought, "If we confuse them enough, maybe they won't realize this sequence stinks."
If a meandering, purposeless plot wasn't bad enough, the pacing at which On Stranger Tides unfolds is sure to infuriate you. Director Rob Marshall describes the film as such…Act One: London, Act Two: Water, Act Three: Jungle. Each act has its own action sequences, held together by the thinnest of story elements, which means we suffer through a lot of getting from here to there. After nearly 55 minutes of setup, the quest finally gets underway, during which we're treated to things like a Barbossa speech about being "King's Men." Blah. Philip the Catholic missionary (Sam Claflin) preaching the importance of saving one's soul. Boring. Angelica and Jack's non-existent sexual tension. Zzzzz. Imposing zombified pirates who fight just like everyone else. Pfft. Wait…What is Judi Dench doing here? Why is Captain Teague (Keith Richards) in London delivering lazy screenwriter exposition? And how exactly did this movie make more than $1 Billion at the box office?!
What I loved most about Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and At World's End is that those scripts were steeped in franchise mythology and the films reveled it. Walking into On Stranger Tides, it's painfully obvious that world no longer exists. Everything here is grounded in a cold, sanitary reality, leaving these once quirky and lovable characters gasping for air. The crew of The Black Pearl were a motley group of well-defined rapscallions. The crew of The Queen Anne's Revenge are 99-Cents Store imitations in whom we have no vested interest. Zombies? Who cares. We've already seen undead pirates and are still tormented by an undead monkey. Even Angelica suffers a blandness unbefitting an actress of Penelope Cruz' skill (maybe the pregnancy was sucking the life from her). And don't even get me started on the Spaniards; these nameless, faceless characters are little more than human set decoration.
The other thing this revamped Pirates of the Caribbean team gets wrong from the very start is that Jack isn't an archetypal hero. He doesn't walk into a dangerous situation and immediately calculate his escape. Jack makes everything up as he goes along, letting luck deliver him from the clutches of certain doom. "Sea turtles, mate." So to see him single-handedly take on the entire regiment of the King's palace guard is preposterous, once again underscoring how unnatural it is for him to exist in this environment. And unlike the actor who plays him, Jack can't carry a movie. He's at his best when part of team, playing the instigator; starting trouble, watching everything fall to pieces, picking clean what's left, and beating a hasty retreat. The minute you require Jack to be anything other than what he is, the character loses his muchness.
But I digress…
Though I have been quite harsh in my observations, On Stranger Tides does redeem itself with a handful of scenes worthy of its predecessors.
• The mutiny aboard The Queen Anne's Revenge is quite impressive, especially in the way that Blackbeard's evil embodies every aspect of that ship. Let's face it, Ian McShane is one badass pirate who doesn't get nearly the story nor the screen time deserving of this character. Blackbeard would have been much more at home in Gore Verbinski's world than Rob Marshall's.
• Tense, frightening, and visually stunning, the mermaid attack at White Cap Bay is perhaps the film's most glorious achievement, with cast, crew, and ILM pulling out all the stops. I only wish this sequence had been used to set the tone for the entire of the film.
• For those (like myself) who loved the comedic character moments of the previous films, Jack and Barbossa's infiltration of and escape from the Spanish camp is absolute gold. Geoffrey refers to it as their Hope and Crosby moment, and I heartily agree. These characters performed by these actors make the most of every moment together.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p high definition, a Disney Blu-ray rarely disappoints. The visuals are stunning, if a bit flat compared to their sun-drenched brethren. Night shoots, location choices, and an overwhelming amount of color correction makes On Stranger Tides a very different looking film, despite having the same cinematographer. The most impressive detail can be found aboard The Queen Anne's Revenge, Barbossa's HMS Providence, and the jungle trek to The Fountain. Lighting changes wildly on this picture, so much so you begin to question the continuity of the story, but the visual fidelity and depth of field remains solid. Though some have claimed a heavy-handedness in post, I noticed no digital enhancement besmirching the Blu-ray image. The now standard 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is a powerhouse sure to get a rise from your neighbors. Although I found it more impressive as a stand-alone listening experience, Hans Zimmer's latin-infused score leads the way, its familiar themes keeping pace with the action. Not one piece of dialogue is lost amongst the clamor of sword fighting, mermaid snatching, horse cart racing, or jungle trudging, and the ambient soundfield will envelope your living room.
And thus my short-lived merriment ends.
Disney's love of the 3D format has officially gone too far. Those of us who abhor Hollywood's 3D infatuation and refuse to purchase a 3D television are now being left behind. Yes, the studio is still offering 2D releases such as this, but stripped of certain bonus features only available on the 3D release. So, if you are a Pirates of the Caribbean junkie and want the full complement of behind-the-scenes offerings (including five featurettes and five deleted scenes), you'll have to pony up more of your hard earned cash. Disney will have you believe when the time comes and you make the move to 3D, you'll already have the film on hand, so it's a win-win. Nice try. When audiences tire of this gimmickry and 3D goes the way of the rest of William Castle's cinematic "innovations," you'll be left with an expensive coaster. In the meantime, those of us 2D dinosaurs are treated to the following bread crumbs…
• Commentary—Director Rob Marshall and his producing partner John DeLuca engage in a two hour love fest, which is heavily congratulatory, not for themselves but rather for everyone who worked on the film. In fact, it gets so bad at one point Rob refers to Johnny as "never making a mistake. Not even a flub. Ever." And yet, if you watch the blooper reel on this or any other Pirates of the Caribbean film, you'll find Johnny's screw-ups are numerous. The one telling thread throughout this discussion—which does offer up a surprising amount of behind-the-scenes detail, if you can tolerate the fluff—is their continuous reference to making On Stranger Tides a "fresh, new" take on the franchise. Sadly, by making that their focus, they've ultimately lost much of what made the original films so rich.
• Second Screen—Disney's latest attempt to add value to the movie-going experience. This downloadable app brings additional behind-the-scenes content to your iPad or laptop. Unfortunately, this feature was not made available for review prior to street date. I'll update this section shortly.
• Bloopers of the Caribbean (3 min)—An obligatory gag reel, one that generates more grins than guffaws.
• Lego Pirates of the Caribbean (5 min)—A glorified commercial for the game which has been on the market since the film's theatrical release, and (as someone who's played it through) is a hell of a lot of fun.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a red-headed step-clone, pretending to be something more than it is. By the time Barbossa claims his revenge and Jack recovers The Black Pearl, my love of the franchise may have been rekindled, but having to suffer through more than 90 minutes for the hope of another adventure like the first three, is almost too much to bear. Having flown in the face of popular opinion and defended all three previous films, I'm dropping my torch and moving on.
Dead men tell no (decent) tales.
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