Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films (May 18 2011), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (October 18 2011), 5-disc set comprising 1 Blu-ray 3D and 2 Blu-ray Discs plus DVD and Digital Copy discs, 136 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition 2:40.1 widescreen, DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 Surround, Rated PG-13, Retail: $49.99
Captain Jack Sparrow returns to the high seas to take on a previous flame-turned-adversary and race the infamous pirate Blackbeard to the fabled Fountain of Youth…
The Sweatbox Review:
There are some movies that are completely critic proof. Whatever is said, or even if word of mouth isn’t very good between friends and family, these movies are the kind that everyone will go and see whether they’re any good or not (and they usually aren’t). Usually these films are studio tent-poles or “event” pictures, most likely sequels or first films in an intended blockbuster “franchises”, to use that very ugly when it comes to filmmakers tossing out the art and having to focus purely on the commerce, and where the hype often outweighs the actual movie.
A case in point is Pirates Of The Caribbean 4, aka On Stranger Tides, which made over a billion dollars in theaters during this past summer despite that old polite phrase, “mixed reviews”. Now, I could write about how the film doesn’t measure up to the original trilogy, in terms of invention or production value, or how Johnny Depp – otherwise in my view the best screen actor currently working today – doesn’t quite seem as at home in his pirate skin…but none of it will matter, because the chances are its disc release is probably already on millions of wish lists if not collectors’ shelves already!
The first film, back in 2003, surprised many, not least because it was that dreaded creature: a movie based on a Disneyland theme park ride. Already we had seen The Country Bears fail, and The Haunted Mansion wouldn’t do a lot to waylay any fears (indeed, Disney is now attempting to reboot that franchise with a remake), though to be fair I always felt if there was any ride from Walt’s original park that provides a rich source of material from which the screenwriters could run then it was the legendary Pirates Of The Caribbean, a ride I had been obsessed with since reading all about its creation as a child, finally experiencing it for myself for the first time in the 1990s.
The real charm of Pirates at Disneyland is in the jaw-dropping detail and Audio-Animatronic designs, which are still impressive today despite advances but must have knocked the socks of visitors in the late 1960s when it first debuted. The ride presents several scenes and various set-ups, from the famed mutt, keys dangling from its mouth, being beckoned ever so slyly by a bunch of imprisoned pirates, to the rather risqué ladies of the night being ogled and at some points openly chased by some of the rougher looking seamen you’re likely to encounter.
The first film’s subtitle, The Curse Of The Black Pearl, indicated a hoped for franchise would set sail, and the film’s phenomenal success guaranteed that. Curse was an important film in Disney’s Studio history for many reasons, not least the fact that it brought teenagers and mature audiences back to the Studio’s releases, something that had been in decline following the big-budget animation disappointments in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, the Disney logo doesn’t actually appear on the front of Curse Of The Black Pearl, and even on the initial DVD release, Disney is keen to downplay their association on the packaging.
With the first Pirates bringing audiences back to Disney, its success provided a renewed interest in the more varied projects the Studio had lined up, though the film’s success could be pin-pointed to just one major element: Captain Jack Sparrow himself. It’s odd to think it now, but Depp’s casting was seen as a major gamble – the star was well known and popular but wasn’t seen as being able to “open” a movie. Pirates changed that, rocketing Depp’s Hollywood bankability as sky-high as Disney’s and earning himself a token “fun role” Oscar nomination in the process.
By the time of the film’s inevitable sequel Dead Man’s Chest, the cat was out of the back, so to speak, and Disney quite rightly took great pride in promoting themselves as well as the movie, even using its release as an event to launch the current Wonderful World Of Disney throwback logo, standing proud and triumphant at the film’s beginning and even getting cheers in theatres. While Curse Of The Black Pearl was a great thrill-ride, a terrific return to the classic swashbucklers of old, Dead Man’s Chest, for me, remains the perfect Pirates adventure, bringing to mind the likes of Disney classics such as Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson.
Although the film was shot back-to-back with the series’ eventual threequel, and so has an open-ended finale that demands a watch of the third outing, it feels as if this is the Pirates movie everyone wanted to make in the first place. There are bigger set pieces (the pirates’ escape from their cliff-side hanging jails, some excellent swordplay atop giant rolling wheels, etc), bigger effects (a wonderfully atmospheric realization of the deep sea terrorising Kraken) and a better villain (the truly revolting Davey Jones), all of which add up to create a rollicking topper to the already hugely entertaining original.
With the third outing suggesting the trilogy would finish up At World’s End, the filmmakers added plot to their already packed world. A fun game for fans of the ride is to pick out where little scenes, moments and characters can be glimpsed in the films, but At World’s End simply heaped too much into the mix. At almost three hours, it was overly long and too densely plotted for a family blockbuster and by the film’s end I was at a lost as to all the double, triple and quadruple-crosses and gave up trying to follow what was going on and just enjoyed Jack’s swash and buckling up in the sailing masts of the ships being torn up in a swirling sea storm.
However, although I couldn’t care less who was by then on whose side or what they were really after, Pirates 3 was still a large-scale spectacle that actually rewards with repeated viewing, although with the closing of co-stars Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom’s characters’ story-arcs, it was still a toss up as to whether there were further Pirates adventures to be had, or whether the screenwriters and filmmakers had used up their inspiration and were in danger of sinking their very profitable ship.
Certainly trilogy director Gore Verbinski was tired: although he and Depp would go on to collaborate on the fantastic animated feature Rango, and are about to work together again on another western, The Lone Ranger, he declined to return to the helmer’s chair when an inevitable fourth sailing was suggested. The intention seems to be to create a second trilogy that primarily deals with Captain Jack’s relationship with old flame Angelica, a backstory that isn’t really dealt with here and will hopefully be elaborated upon in Pirates 5 or 6.
With the old cast largely retired from the series, On Stranger Tides feels strangely detached from the first three films just as much as it feels like a sequel to them. In fact, if there’s anything about the movie that feels routine, it that it’s very much just business as usual, and in danger of simply going through the motions. Picking up the slack, Chicago and Nine director Rob Marshall doesn’t really bring anything new to what Verbinksi had set up, and mostly it could have seemed just as Verbinski was actually directing, save for a bit of extra flabbiness that I don’t think would have made the cut under his stewardship.
By this point, these kinds of films almost make themselves. It’s moviemaking by committee, not least when the producer is the prolific Jerry Bruckheimer, who was lured by Disney on to the original movie when they realized they needed a blockbuster producer with a fresh eye on how to reinvent the pirate genre. Bruckheimer was sold when he saw writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s supernatural take on the ride: some nice additions that were totally in keeping with the original but gave the movies their solid core strengths. Elliot and Rossio have remained with the series for all four voyages, but here even their wild wit and invention feels creaky, and despite a lot of as yet untapped moments from the ride, there’s very little to link it back here.
Depp’s Sparrow became such an instant iconic character that he could be placed in any situation and be entertaining, but the original film’s lucky stroke of genius casting has turned into something that comes close to resembling self-parody. I think the problem is that for the first film, Elliot and Rossio were simply writing for a rouge-ish scallywag, basically an anti-hero that the audience couldn’t help rooting for. Somewhere along the way, Depp entered the fray and, being the consummate actor that he is, embellished Sparrow with his own mannerisms, not least the Keith Richards’ inspired drunken drawl. Even then, though, Sparrow was part of an ensemble cast, a character who wasn’t really any more important than those around him, and better portrayed that way.
Depp so quickly became the breakout character and face of the franchise that he was immediately made the complete center of the first two sequels, and perhaps the swiftness of their production meant the writers were still able to capture their original voice and blend it with Depp’s Sparrow. With a little time passed between World’s End and Stranger Tides, it seems that they’re now simply writing for Depp and trying to predict what his Sparrow might say and how he might say it. And, now as a leading man, having to carry the film almost sinks the character: Captain Jack’s lines have no quirkiness to them, no spontaneous energy: it’s as if they’re trying to come up with funny lines for him instead of letting Depp find the humor in the delivery.
With Knightley out of the picture, Penelope Cruz is drafted in, ostensibly as a new foil for Jack but mostly here to pull in the teenage boys. Anyway, she turns out to have had “a past” with the Captain and, even more importantly, a connection to the villainous pirate Blackbeard – another of the film’s problems. A potentially truly scary villain, and widely known as the deadliest pirate to sail the seven seas, almost nothing is done with the character. Ian McShane pulls on the costume and make-up and absolutely looks the part, but all this supposedly most feared man and evil incarnate himself does is wander around looking a bit mean and moody now and again, and the lack of Blackbeard and his ship-full of sea-faring zombie crewmates getting anything interesting to do is a colossal waste of character, actor and situation.
Perhaps there’s some interest in the supporting characters? Um, not really, and while it’s nice to have the return of Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa and Jack’s first mate from the first three films, there isn’t any freshness about them, Barbossa himself being quite a sketchily drawn bad guy turned advisor to the King (Uncle Vernon, Richard Griffiths, being the only one who actually makes an impression). How about the rousing score, surely a memorable element in any pirate movie? Well, although there is the danger of one or two new motifs creeping through the notes, it largely feels as if Hans Zimmer’s score has been cobbled together from the CDs of the initial three films’ soundtracks, offering very little new and threatening to become pretty routine very quick.
What is good is the production design, and although series designer Rick Heinrichs is a no-show, his imprint is clearly felt. The opening London scenes, shot authentically in Greenwich, are impressive even if the actual picture editing is very sloppy. More than once during an opening chase scene in which we meet Jack and he escapes, I felt the cutting could have been much tighter, and overall the film is talky and in need of more pace and action. The quest angle is also a misfire, turning Jack Sparrow’s adventures into a more routine action-adventure movie where everyone arrives for a perfect denouement and several sub-plots (involving a preacher and a mermaid) are simply forgotten almost as if someone suddenly remembered Sparrow was supposed to be the star of the show.
It could be that some of these issues are holdovers from On Stranger Tides, an original book that has nothing to do with Jack Sparrow or the pirates of the Caribbean and was only bought by Disney so as to use its central Fountain of Youth storyline without later copyright repercussions. It certainly seems that characters come and go without much care put into their backstories: Blackbeard’s ship The Queen Anne’s Revenge apparently has a supernatural aspect in keeping with the series legend, but like Blackbeard himself this is never expanded upon satisfactorily. The insertion of the religious man feels like he’s not really there other than to feature an Orlando Bloom type in the cast, although he remains on the sidelines until the conclusion when an event occurs and he frustratingly becomes the center of attention…but why are we are supposed to care about his fate?
Likewise a promising set piece featuring siren-like Mermaids that lure sailors to their deaths, where these finned beautiful women attack the beached pirates Jaws-style, is almost exciting but then over in seconds, a remaining Mermaid taken along for the rest of the film being a confusing character with a uncertain purpose that ultimately seems not to matter anyway, and the closing moments are too strongly a reminder of a similar character dynamic in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Whether Elliot and Rossio themselves need a rest from the series (it is said that another film has been outlined, though with Rossio taking a break, which is telling), it’s clear that some fresh blood needs to be brought on board.
It’s an odd mix of old and new elements, but none of it really gels effectively, a lack of adroit storytelling and creativity not making the most of the lore set up previously and resting all too lazily and conveniently on Jack Sparrow’s shoulders. He’s a great character, but he’s a great ensemble character, and here, without a great ensemble, he’s a bit lost at sea with having to carry almost the entire picture. McShane’s Blackbeard and Cruz’s Angelica also fail to hit, the storyline trying to be vague and mysterious but almost feeling as if it was being made up as they went along, Cruz’s character in particular not being focused enough as to whether we’re supposed to be on her side or Jack’s in their playing of games.
In addition to these shortcomings, the movie also raises several questions, some of which seem to be heading for answers to be revealed in future outings, in particular the fate of Jack’s ship the Black Pearl, which for some reason has ended up being encased like a model ship in an empty rum bottle (What!? I must have missed something!), and the fate of Jack himself, now at the mercy of the voodoo-Jack wielding Angelica. But, apparently, none of this actually matters, because On Stranger Tides, as its box-office booty suggests, obviously provided enough entertainment to enough people in theaters to have Disney moving on another two films, and will likely be a big home video hit in the run up to the Christmas gift-giving period. Whether it’s any good or not just isn’t important: it’s critic proof.
Is This Thing Loaded?
There are some supplement packages that can really make one re-appreciate the main feature they accompany, even if that main feature didn’t really inspire much appreciation in the first place! And, while the extras for Pirates 4 are not as in-depth as those provided for the first three films’ home video discs in terms of multiple commentaries and dedicated featurettes, they still offer a welcome look behind the scenes and help us marvel at, chiefly but among other things, the awesome craftwork that went into the set construction, most notably the “locations” that were recreated on a soundstage and look indistinguishable from the real thing.
The Blu-ray 3D disc, as usual for a Disney title, carries nothing but the movie, understandably in this case given the length and complexity of the 3D encode. What is good is the amount of material presented across both regular Blu-ray discs, which beats the single disc offerings being widely released around the world. On Disc One, the primary attraction is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Rob Marshall and his executive producer John DeLuca, which is an amiable chat between the two that sometimes sways towards the “oh, he or she was great to work with” kind of comments but more often than not provides some insight from their perspective.
Disney’s Second Screen makes another appearance after literally popping up on Tron: Legacy, Bambi and, most recently, The Lion King, but again it’s a frustrating half set-top player/half online experience that can be annoying to play with. Syncing up a second computer screen to your movie’s usual display, Second Screen attempts to download additional “fun” or “interesting” items while you watch the film, the problem being that you need a net connection that’s fast enough and are willing to keep stopping the film to re-sync it. I’ve no real problem in theory with Disney offering online extras, but I do wish they’d offer them on the discs too, and again there’s no reason most of this couldn’t have been, particularly as a picture-in-picture Cine-Explore type visual accompaniment to the audio commentary, which can’t even be played while Second Screen is active.
Since their introduction to the short film world some ten or so years ago (as a stop-motion fan-made spoof, I believe, of Star Wars), characters based on popular film figures have found a crazy form of success for themselves as rendered in Lego bricks, those miniature building blocks that every kid must have had growing up. Turning into mini-franchises of their own, these Lego adventures have more recently become video game heroes and CG-animated spin-offs in their own right, and presented next are several Lego Animated Shorts: Captain Jack’s Brick Tales (running a Play All five minutes). Silly, but fun enough, it’s nice that they’re available here, though that they kind of basically run-through the movie’s storyline means there’s no surprises. Also fun, but not actually infectious, is a quick Bloopers Of The Caribbean reel, lasting three and a half minutes.
Disc Two features, if not a complete cornucopia of supplements, then a decent enough assemblage of behind the scenes material, all of it in HD. Legends Of On Stranger Tides is a 36-minute production diary of the entire film’s shooting, from the first day of filming, through the London location and studio shoot, to the final take. Blackbeard is again played up as being a terrifying scourge of the oceans, which only makes his eventual blandness in the film all the more disappointing. As well as one actor’s personal diary footage – which is playful and fun – the set footage is intercut with interviews with primary cast and crew (Depp, Marshall, Bruckheimer, et al), making for a nice and rounded look at the film that, whatever one thinks of the result, was clearly made with all best intentions and obvious dedication.
The concept of the Fountain of Youth are explored in In Search Of The Fountain, which presents some interesting early artwork and the cast and crew’s reaction to the central story idea. The construction of the Fountain at London’s Pinewood Studios is interesting to see, again inviting appreciation at the level of detail a film like this commands in its sets, and there’s a good revealing of the visual effects for the sequence. Marshall himself could be something of a special effect here, looking much more “Hollywood” than back when he was making a name for himself with Chicago (if you see it, you’ll see what I mean), but there’s more good on-set footage in the 11-minute run time.
Last Sail, First Voyage once more establishes Blackbeard’s wannabe-scary credentials, but is more focused on his ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge. Sharing much more than Sparrow’s supernaturally-haunted Black Pearl than one might realize, it was in fact the Pearl’s actually sea-worthy structure that was reconstructed as the Revenge, by removing the top-half of the back of the ship and creating a three-tier formation to serve as both Blackbeard’s luxury quarters and a monstrous and formidable design that would instantly threaten other vessels on the waters. It’s again a marvel to see the level of work that went into every detail in this eight minute featurette, and seriously impressive to then see the Revenge sail off, for real, to the movie’s set! There’s more on-set and visual effects exploration in Under The Scene: Bringing Mermaids To Life, which is a pretty self-explanatory nine minutes and investigates suitably.
A series of Deleted and Extended Scenes wouldn’t have added much, although I find it odd the scant few seconds featuring Old Bill, from the ride, was cut when it would have made a needed link back to the original inspiration…I wonder what the reason was for its removal? Of the other scenes, Tonight might have added some more humor to Pirates 4, but the rest mostly just drag out moments that were long in the movie anyway. Marshall intros each scene, which in a Play All run last around nine minutes.
Johnny Vs. Geoffrey is the fluffiest clip here, briefly exploring Captains Jack and Barbossa’s relationship and the fun dynamic between actors Depp and Rush, but it’s light on real insight and more about how great each are to work with, although among all the complimenting there are some fun on-set moments. A welcome bunch of Menu Easter Eggs can also be found, via nudging your remote keys over left or right next to almost every bonus option. Lasting around a couple of minutes each, these welcome little extra extras shed light on things such as how an actor’s anecdote wound up as a gag in the film, the shooting of one single shot, and a few more video diary snippets.
On the DVD and Digital Copy disc, the feature is presented in perfectly acceptable standard definition, with the DVD also including the Bloopers Of The Caribbean and Captain Jack’s Brick Tales Lego adventures. Across all the discs in the set, previews are included for Disney’s All-Access online concept, The Muppets, Cars 2, TreasureBuddies, plus television’s Phineas And Ferb, usual Disney spots for the theme parks, Movie Rewards and, most excitingly, a full HD trailer (on the BD, natch) for John Carter (of Mars).
I must say up front how hysterical I found the front cover of On Stranger Tides on Blu-ray 3D, specifically for the outrageously over-protruding breasts of Penelope Cruz. Looking as sultry and alluring as possible, her chest breaks all laws of depth and, although she’s ostensibly standing behind Depp’s Sparrow, her lady lumps are the single most dimensional aspect of the lenticular slipcover that designates this as Disney’s latest 3D release. Seriously, it’s quite over the top (or out in front?) and blatant in its attempt to sex her up and remind those teenage boys that she’s in it, though it has to be said that she never looks quite as comely in the actual movie (Cruz was actually pregnant throughout shooting, with her almost identical sister often standing in for full-length body shots, not that this is ever expanded upon in the supplements).
An entire paragraph dedicated to the charms of Ms Cruz’ aside, the rest of the packaging for this 5-disc edition (other configurations are also available, but rather sneakily of Disney it’s only this combo that has the extras disc) comprises of the now standard thicker Blu-ray case that replicates the same slipcover artwork on the actual sleeve, where I do have to pick apart Boxoffice Magazine’s quote that this is “the best Pirates ever!” as being total baloney. An assortment of inserts and booklets inside promote much Pirates merchandise and other Disney product, including the Movie Rewards code and a handy $5 rebate when you buy one of the previous Pirates on Blu-ray.
Ink And Paint:
Blu-ray 3D: Not being a total fan of 3D to begin with, I must say how begrudgingly impressed I have been by some of the computer animated films I’ve seen in the format both theatrically and in the home. Brightness and color seem to really favor the medium and even the converted traditionally animated Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King have recently surprised with their levels of added depth. However, a major stumbling block for 3D seems to be darkly-lit live-action material, which over prolonged movie lengths can strain the eyes. I hadn’t really been affected by this until I saw Tron: Legacy in a theater, and I only just made it through the black and neon lit duration without developing a major head-ache.
The only second time I’ve felt the same way was with…you guessed it…Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a film that was actually shot in location with 3D cameras and yet strangely adds so little to the image. Almost half the moviegoing public chose to watch the film on non-3D “flat” screens, and I can tell them they weren’t missing much at all. In fact, with the movie being so dark in places, I decided to remove the 3D glasses around 40 minutes from the end of the movie – and found that every character was solidly sharp in focus the whole time and only the backgrounds, which would have been out of focus anyway due to the depth of field, only slightly fuzzy.
I was quite happily able to continue watching the film without any further adverse eyestrain (and did actually see one or two other people in the audience who shared my lack of enthusiasm for the specs) and, considering that distributors routinely dial back the depth of the added dimension for home viewing, I was most interested in seeing how Pirates 4 looked in this format. The question wasn’t really “how good is the 3D?”, but rather, “how the heck could they reduce the 3D any more than it was to start with?”! The answer is that On Stranger Tides is a very limiting 3D experience, and certainly isn’t the kind of demo disc that anyone serious about showing off a 3D set-up should use as something supposedly awesome.
This it most certainly ain’t, and although one could say there is a greater sense of depth to the image, this isn’t used creatively or for any reason: the added dimension is simply there, not doing anything to help us become immersed in the pirate world or to assist with a story point or specific prop or effect. Marshall says in his commentary that he’s not someone who believes every film should be seen in 3D, and this does explain the lack of playing or experimenting with the format, even if he does quantify that he is pleased with Pirates’ approach.
Only two or three times does the extra-D manage to extend something out of the screen, and almost every one of those times it is merely a sword being aimed directly at camera, an clichéd effect which should make us wince at how close the tip of the blade is to our eyes, but fails each time by being out of focus, the preference being on keeping the character sharp instead of making the sword feel particularly deadly. Again the lack of brightness is an issue in several sections of the movie, especially if you’re watching in anything but a darkened room, even if the helicopter shots of The Queen Anne’s Revenge are somewhat striking.
But with a smaller screen and probably having the feeling of sitting “further away” as opposed to a view-filling theater screen, these moments come over as even weaker in the home, and perhaps this is the reason Disney is only releasing the film as a Limited 3D Edition; for those that really want it, it’s here, but they know the majority of their sales will be found with the regular Blu-ray format. My suggestion is that you also sail this route: while still no big 3D fan, I admit that it can bring a new perspective – literally – to some movies, but it’s only worth paying for when that added dimension is worth paying for, and that’s just not the case here.
Blu-ray Disc: Thank goodness that 3D hasn’t taken off to the extent that we are unable to access the traditional “flat” editions of the current rash of multi-dimensional movies, since if anything I’d actually go ahead and say that the included regular BD features an image that contains more inherent depth to it than the more trumpeted 3D disc! Textures are very nicely rendered and this is one kind of film where the extra definition really plays off in being able to appreciate the fine details of the completely enveloping pirate world the film creates.
As mentioned in the supplements comments above, the craftsmanship of the sets, location dressing and costumes is absolutely the best the screen can afford, and if nothing less then this Blu-ray certainly confirms that all the money ended up on the screen. With the disc almost to itself, Pirates 4 has a good deal of space to show itself off to best advantage: it’s a very good looking film on a very good looking disc. The DVD and Digital Copy discs obviously loose resolution and clarity, but the sharpness is still present on the DVD as best as the format can provide.
A top-grade blockbuster event franchise picture from one of the most successful studio and producer partnerships, Disney and Bruckheimer would allow nothing less than the absolute pinnacle of sonic perfection…and this is exactly what the bombastic 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track makes sure we witness. As such, there really isn’t anything more to say, perhaps other than its Zimmer’s score that seems to make the most noise, often calling attention to itself throughout, or that could just have been as I kept thinking I’d heard these exact same cues in the previous three films. On Stranger Tides is an almost perfect soundtrack…it’s just a shame the movie as a whole doesn’t have one particular stand-out demo moment.
Pirates 4 doesn’t live up to the high-seas fun of the first three films, mostly due to the change in cast and crew, and it will be interesting to see how our relationship to the new characters changes over another two proposed films. This time out feels too much like a return to basics: a lower budget (something of an oxymoron when so much money is spent on making a film like this look great) and a new director and characters makes it feel like the first film in a new series while also fighting the fact it’s actually the fourth, and feeling pretty tired with it.
Certainly from the post-credit additional scene, it looks like the next one could be the better film in this rumored new trilogy, much as I found the second to be the best of the original three. But, like I said right at top, whatever we say means very little: the Pirates juggernaut will keep on ploughing through the waters until it becomes a financially sinking ship. Given the $1bn+ box-office of On Stranger Tides I’d say that was a while off yet, but there’s definitely a big leak that needs looking at before they set sail again, or the waters will become even more choppy indeed.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?