The third installment in Disney's epically successful 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise risks drowning in its own excess

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

on May 25, 2007 by Mark Keizer
To understand how important Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is to Disney, its subsidiaries, shareholders and well-wishers, note that the movie's first scene shows a lineup of bedraggled and resigned prisoners being hanged…for piracy. Sure, Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) hates piracy, especially the brand practiced by mincing troublemaker Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) since the Pirates saga began in 2003. But Disney hates piracy even more, specifically the kind that results in DVDs being hawked on New York street corners hours after a movie premieres in theatres.

But, as the third, and hopefully final, installment of the series begins, Disney's second-quarter earnings report is not Jack's problem. Jack's problem is that he's dead, killed by the fearsome Kraken at the end of Pirates 2 . His supposed demise concluded a sequel that was smothered in plot, a problem that had slim chance of being alleviated here because Pirates 2 and 3 were shot simultaneously.

The story, by returning writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is not to be passively understood but rather chased down with a net. Capturing this lumbering creature, made of shifting alliances, pirate babble and dialogue-obscuring accents, is nigh impossible. It doesn't help that the first action sequence involves series newbie Chow Yun-Fat. He plays Sao Feng, a Chinese pirate captain in possession of a map that will lead Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, having too much fun) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) to Jack, who resides in the limbo of Davy Jones' locker. After stealing Feng's map, they sail over the edge of the world where Jack and his beloved Black Pearl occupy a desolate, cracked-earth eternity that Terry Gilliam might have dreamed up.

The movie's logic isn't built for clarity but special effects opportunities, of which there are many. In limbo, Jack and the Black Pearl are deposited into the sea by thousands of white rocks that hatch into crabs. To escape limbo, the reunited crew rocks the ship back and forth until it capsizes, which, for some reason, transports them back to the land of the living. Jack's return could not be better timed. He was the only missing member of the Nine Lords of the Brethren Court, a collective of pirate leaders whose solidarity is the key to defeating Beckett and his multi-tentacled ally Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who continues to command freaky fishmates on the Flying Dutchman.

The Court's summit on Shipwreck Island (imagine a meeting between the heads of New York's mafia crime families) includes a cameo by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. As Captain Teague, keeper of a voluminous listing of proper pirate behavior called the Pirate's Code, he adds nothing except a meta-nod to Depp's inspiration for Jack's half-drunken and slurry mannerisms. Richards makes slightly less of an impression than the feathery Bloom. His romance with Elizabeth, who manages to complete this grimy, pierced and tattooed adventure without acquiring a single smudge on her face, now feels a matter of obligation. Never has so much dialogue resulted in so little character.

And, since there are so many characters that require tending, Elliott and Rossio can't possibly service them all satisfactorily. In Pirates 2 , the mysterious witch Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), all black lipstick and voodoo portend, was positioned for a role of future importance. In Pirates 3 she fills script needs. Davy Jones requires the softening that only a long-lost lover can provide? Give him Tia. Adventure-gorged moviegoers demand an epic battlefield for the climatic seafaring shootout? Have Tia grow 50 feet tall, turn into thousands of crabs and create an enormous whirlpool in which the ships can slug it out.

This whirlpool battle is admittedly pretty thrilling, and no matter how busy and cacophonous it gets, Verbinski never loses track of the action and even manages to compose some beautiful shots. But it's sound effects and pixels, signifying nothing. Even Rick Heinrichs' production design, a feast of detail in the first two movies, has become suffocating under the weight of unlimited funds. Comparatively, every scene on an empty beach feels like a vacation.

The arc of the Pirates trilogy resembles that of The Matrix series, where the success of a stand-alone movie gives way to lumbering, confusing sequels where the taint of inevitability is overcompensated for with lethal doses of plot. Depp, the main reason there's a trilogy to speak of, has little to do in the finale other than remind us of the risk he took in making Jack a prancing, pickled, high-seas comedian. Indeed, the movie isn't even satisfied with one Jack. We now have numerous Jacks who pop up in desperately oddball sequences where he hallucinates multiples of himself.

But give Depp a treasure chest worth of credit. He took a project that smacked of greed—a Disney movie based on a Disney theme park ride—and provided an unexpected, lighthearted and supremely welcome streak of anarchy. The tragedy is, the last two films are exactly what we feared the first one would be: corporate entertainment, heavy yet frivolous, trying to buy our love with bloated spectacle.
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush and Chow Yun-Fat
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriters: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer
Genre: Fantasy adventure
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images
Running time: 168 min.
Release date: May 25, 2007

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