Conventional wisdom rightly states that the first Pirates of the Caribbean picture is pretty good, and its two sequels...not so much. So when franchise director handed over the reins to Rob Marshall for third sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, his marching orders from Disney seem to have been: do that first thing we did. The problem with attempting to replicate the magic, such as it was, of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is you get something very close to a replica, minus the novelty.
So, yes, On Stranger Tides—"suggested by" the Ted Powers novel of the same name—trims its sails and battens down the hatches in ways that suggest the leaner (if not meaner) franchise launcher. But there's also a "been there, done that" feel to the enterprise. The franchise-symbolic quest for the Fountain of Youth that's at at the heart of On Stranger Tides could just as easily have fueled an Indiana Jones movie, which makes sense given that Captain Jack Sparrow is Johnny Depp's own personal action hero, inextricably linked to the actor. This unlikeliest of Disney heroes remains in fine fettle, racoon eyeliner in place as he drunkenly slurs his words, minces and prances around English drawing rooms, tall ships, and desert islands. Depp gives another unequivocally great movie-star performance that's probably in itself worth the price of admission. And for about half an hour, On Stranger Tides stays grounded in old-school swashbuckling and some quality comic shtick.
Eventually, of course, we meet "zombified" crew members, mermaids, and a legitimately magical fountain of youth: in other words, the requisite supernature to justify eye-catching makeup and CGI special effects (still, no giant squids—that's something). Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have left the building, to be replaced by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as soggy mermaid Syrena and Sam Claflin as bland missionary Philip Swift, the stolidly moral counterpart to Sparrow. Penélope Cruz lends her star power as Angelica, Jack's former flame and daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the film's ruthless villain. Returning players Geoffrey Rush (as peg-legged Captain Hector Barbossa—a "privateer" not a pirate, thank you) and Kevin McNally (as mutton-chopped mate Mr. Gibbs) rejoin Depp and figure prominently in the proceedings. Lending that British touch of class are Harry Potter escapee Richard Griffiths and, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-'er cameo, Dame Judi Dench.
Marshall does good-enough-for-government work, though there's really nothing distinctive or memorable here. A coach chase, a swordfight between Depp and Cruz (or, rather, their stunt doubles), and the open-sea sailing scenes prove that Marshall and Depp still have some mighty big toys for playtime, but On Stranger Tides lacks genuine excitement or rooting interest for anyone over the age of eight. Still, let them eat cake: there are worse family films than this one, which—though not remotely as Rango-strange as its title promises—does carry some momentary subversions, namely the toe-to-toe matchup of Angelica to Jack and what appears at first to be a same-sex kiss between two Jack Sparrows. "I always wanted to do that," Jack remarks. More than a witty summation of Jack's self-love, it's a reflection of the pre-sold franchise's head having wormed its way up its own nether regions.
Disney unleashes Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in a walloping five-disc set: a Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray (+ Blu-ray bonus-features disc) + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack (one can also opt for the Blu-ray + DVD combo pack or the DVD-only edition). While the Blu-ray 3D transfer doesn't eliminate the pesky issue of ghosting, this is one of the most impressive live-action 3D transfers on the market, as the film was shot in 3D (not converted in post like so many pretenders). As in theaters, jutting swords make a big impact as they seem to burst through the frame, but the image is also capable of subtler effects in deepening the hi-def depth of the tropical vistas on display. Whatever's shot outdoors in natural sunlight looks downright amazing, but underwater footage also benefits from 3D, and the film often exploits planes of depth with reaching limbs and foreground objects popping from the screen. Generally, this is a pretty dark franchise, and the night-drenched scenes aren't reference-quality 3D, but on the whole, this is an impressive presentation. The 2D version also looks quite fine, with no compression artifacts and excellent marks in all categories (perhaps especially textures and color representation). As for sound, holey moley: Disney delivers a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix that's positively flawless and unmistakeably potent. Loud and lively, its biggest surprise is the crispness of dialogue amidst all the sonic busyness.
Disney also loads up the set with bonus features, beginning with an audio commentary by director Rob Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca on the Blu-ray 2D version but ironically discussing at length the 3D filming process (as well as tales from the production). On the same disc, you get Disney Second Screen capability, syncing the film with your computer or iPad to "explore exclusive interactive content"—basically it's an ooh-ahh version of a PiP track.
Making-of featurette "Legends of On Stranger Tides" (36:16, HD) includes interview footage of Marshall, Johnny Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, writer Terry Rossio, et al, along with plenty of all-access-pass production footage.
"In Search of the Fountain" (10:59, HD) explores the legendary Fountain of Youth and how the film interprets it.
"Last Sail, First Voyage" (8:20, HD) focuses on Blackbeard, his ship, and the man who plays him, Ian McShane.
VFX featurette "Under the Scene: Bringing Mermaids to Life" (9:20, HD) gives a crash course in making siren-esque mermaids come to life, from casting to digital paintwork.
Five "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (HD)—"Old Bill," "Smart Now," "Tonight," "Tango" and "Voodoo Doll"—come with introductions by Marshall.
"Johnny Vs. Geoffrey" (2:41, HD) gathers a few choice comments from Depp and Geoffrey Rush.
On both the Blu-ray and the DVD are "Bloopers of the Caribbean" (3:29, HD) and the cute commercial "Lego Pirates of the Caribbean" (02:06, HD).
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer