It seems the writing crew of the Pirates franchise has learned little from the clustered At World’s End. Stranger Tides sort of rolls over and dies once it begins expanding its roster, the titular Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) the golden goose of this franchise, also its only remaining spark.
Warring pirates Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard (Ian McShane) offer a bit of punch for this adventure towards the fountain of youth, all of them brought down by middling side characters and in inordinate amount of captures. Sparrow can escape stuff; we get it.
The heart feels ripped out of this franchise, losing Keira Knightley whose feminine toughness is replaced by a lackluster Penelope Cruz. Keeping it in the family, Cruz plays Blackbeard’s daughter, her allegiances shaky at first, then undying, but swapping without any energy. Even across from Depp, she never merges with the upbeat pleasantries of this franchise, seemingly taking this all too seriously.
Clouded with religious interludes, zombies (because everything needs zombies), mermaids, and the Spaniards who are only needed for convenience apparently, Stranger never focuses on the ultimate goal. It’s nice to see a studio have faith in a series for once, Disney plunging $250 million into this one for extravagant costuming, lavish sets, and glorious boats, but shouldn’t they double check the script first?
Maybe there’s a tinge of desperation too, the series trying to regain audience faith after what was an unmitigated disaster in the trilogy ender. There are more antics, quips, and laughs, all fine, but it’s all shoved between endless pandering to develop characters that have no influence on the Pirates saga as a whole. Phillip (Sam Claflin) might as well be playing the random prince guy from Little Mermaid, falling hopelessly in love with a fish chick without so much as a personable glance. If the concept was to create sympathy for the captured mer-creature, Cruz’s personality does much the same.
Hans Zimmer’s score might be the saving grace, oddly oppressed in At World’s End and brought back to a full flourish here. Those zips and dramatic dives of his flowing music is arguably the best in a decade from any film composer, and nearly save Stranger’s now typical sword clashing and rope swinging. Consider “nearly” the crucial piece of that sentence.
Series newcomer Rob Marshall dives into the digital realm, forging ahead with the Red One and the Red One MX (the first digital of the franchise). The result is a bold, stern, and forceful series of moving images, aided by intense blacks that only kick the bucket on a rare occasion. Contrast is given a spark of life to offer up all the dimensionality that can be provided, and probably aid a bit in the realm of 3D too.
However, this is a 2D disc being written up here, and much of Stranger Tides will look familiar. Colors are dense, especially once the jungles are reached on this quest. The seas are gifted with a gorgeous blue, and extensive costuming is laced with golds or vivid reds. Nighttime sequences, and there are far more than you’d expect, are dimmed with hot orange flame and moon-lit blues. The effect remains irritating even if it’s not overly garish. It’s still sapping some of the life from this summer entertainment spectacle.
Detail proves immense at times, those times being when the outfits are in grand view. Stitching becomes visible even with distance, and every one of those small buttons or strands of fabric are completely defined. A handful of aerials will impress too, Hawaii locales glistening with their lush paradises. There’s always that sense that something is missing, that “something” clearly being distinct, tight facial detail, visible -generally speaking- during full zooms. Spectacles comes with higher expectations, and Stranger doesn’t live up to the precedent set by preceding films.
Mild annoyances creed up elsewhere, notably the first mermaid attack at night. Whether it’s the CGI, the transfer, the source (or a combo of the three), water splashes erupt into clear artifacting that simply shouldn’t be there. Some of those panning shots of the landscape seem to have equal trouble holding together, although combined these artifacting concerns are mere minutes out of a two hour plus movie.
Disney’s use of full 7.1 audio has come to play here, the tracking and surround use absolutely pristine. Stranger’s action kicks off with a chase through London, the horse drawn carriages brilliantly panning across the soundstage as horse hooves are kept in constant motion. Sword fights are generous, pings on the high end the height of home audio fidelity, and it’s coming from every direction.
There’s a lot of fun here though too, a shipwreck as Barbosa and Sparrow do the old back and forth teetering gag wonderful as the audio picks up the precise locations. Objects scatter to one side, and the boat creaks on a mountain crest as the weight shifts. Despite its action, this could be the best audio this track provides, mostly for the fun factor involved.
What seems weirdly lacking is the bass, the low-end not responding with the expected oomph. While this one doesn’t go all out with cannon blasts, it has its share of potential. The stand-off mentioned above will let the boat moan a bit with a mild gurgle-like rumble, not enough to sell the scale of the ship. Winds will carry some weight late, yet moments before, a temple is destroyed as rocks are toppled, landing with barely a thud. There’s no sense of size being delivered.
The positionals can make up for a lot, but there’s definitely prestige associated with the Pirate saga on Blu. This one doesn’t live up to it, and most of that can be directed towards the deadened subwoofer effects.
Disney produces a paltry set of extras, either preparing for a mega-set down the road or a double dip. Director Rob Marshall joins executive producer John DeLuca for commentary chatter, followed by a short series of bloopers. Lego Pirates of the Caribbean retell the story with animated Legos and in only five minutes. It’s nothing more than a promo. The disc also supports Disney’s Second Screen, but it’s not like there’s much content to go around for it.