After Captain Jack Sparrow’s confusing and overblown third outing nearly sank the entire Pirates franchise, there was a palpable sense of “one too many” in the air upon the release of On Stranger Tides. It didn’t help that Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had the audacity to saddle the project with director Rob Marshall, most famous for helming musicals. Musicals + pirates = stranger tides indeed. Pirates of Penzance, anyone? Thankfully, Marshall’s touch is barely noticeable, and the plot is linear and logical enough to actually make sense for its entire length, helping this voyage turn out rather pleasant for the most part.
The movie opens and spends a good chunk of time in London, not by the sea but in the streets. That affords Captain Jack the opportunity to participate in a riotous and amusing chase scene on horse-drawn carriages before finally finding his way to the water. Once there, he sets off on a mission to find the Fountain of Youth as part of a crew led by Blackbeard (the excellent Ian McShane) and his lovely daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz). Along the way, they encounter deadly mermaids as well as two other rivals to the Fountain: Spaniards and a crew of British soldiers led by Sparrow’s old frenemy, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Most of the film was shot in Hawaii, and it shows, frequently leaving me feeling like I was watching Lost instead of plundering the Caribbean.
Depp is in fine form in his signature role, with his bumbling, oft-imitated mannerisms coming perilously close to but never quite wearing out their welcome. Cruz is just okay in her unchallenging role, providing the requisite eye candy and a bit of spark but nothing more. Rush is a blast of energy during his limited screen time. Surprisingly though, McShane gets the most mileage out of his role, contributing a simmering, dangerous, authoritative take on the Blackbeard character that makes him an excellent antagonist for the film.
While the film is a competent popcorn thrill ride, Marshall puts in a directing-by-numbers performance, adding absolutely no personal stamp or distinctive flair to the project. He’s steering a massive ship, and clearly didn’t see the need to plot a course anywhere outside its preordained course. That’s probably the best approach for this project, but still leaves it feeling a bit bland, flat, and seemingly directed by itself. It would be interesting to see a fresh approach to the property, but highly unlikely that Disney will ever choose to rock this profitable mass-market boat.
The film looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, with the best audio channel separation I’ve experienced this year. The only drawback in 2D presentation is the sense that you’re missing a bit every time there’s an obvious 3D sword thrust at the screen. The traditional bonus features on the Blu are very limited, highlighted by only a brief and not very funny blooper reel. However, the disc also includes Disney’s innovative Second Screen functionality that allows viewers to synchronize with an iPad or PC to explore in-depth details about the production while simultaneously watching the film on TV. I’d love to tell you more about it, but Disney didn’t activate the functionality in advance of the Blu-ray release date, leaving only a placeholder on their website.