Nearly 45 minutes into Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) still hasn’t shown his face on screen. But because screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and director Gore Verbinski can basically do whatever they want with the franchise at this point, they attempt to make up for this inexplicable oversight in a way that ultimately summarizes everything that’s wrong with the movie: They populate the scene in which Sparrow finally does appear with approximately two dozen hallucinatory duplicates of him. This is because apparently there’s nothing that can’t be solved by more, more and, oh yes, still yet more in this film.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest sailed into last summer as a rousing, phenomenally successful follow-up to the 2003 original. Plenty of critics blasted it as bloated, but it seemed to me a fine mix of energetically choreographed adventure and Depp’s enthusiastic reprisal of Sparrow. At World’s End, however, turns out to be everything Chest’s fiercest detractors claimed it was— over-stuffed, over-plotted and, most surprisingly, just plain dull.
It is possible to stay awake by trying to keep track of the several hundred plot threads drifting through this thing. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley)—along with their returned one-time adversary Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush)—are seeking Sparrow as the film opens, since we last saw Sparrow dragged to a watery grave at the end of Dead Man’s Chest. But Will still has a mission to free his father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) from the curse of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Barbossa has his own secret mission involving a promise to the mysterious Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). Elizabeth’s one-time beau Norrington (Jack Davenport) is controlling Davy Jones and the crew of the Flying Dutchman. And there are more pirate captains, including another old adversary of Sparrow’s, Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat). If it weren’t set in a world before indoor plumbing, I’m sure the kitchen sink would have made an appearance.
None of the previous films could exactly be called textbook examples of streamlined storytelling, but at least they were buoyed by an understanding of where the focus needed to be. For one, it needed to be on Depp, who provided that rare example of a franchise built not on a premise, but on a performance. Yet Sparrow not only takes forever to appear—though, admittedly, 45 minutes here only amounts to about a quarter of the running time—but he disappears for other chunks of the film as well. Sparrow gets too few of the kind of scenes that made him such an engaging creation, while ample time is given to the now-pouty romance between Will and Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, Verbinski can’t even provide action set pieces with enough zip to counteract the narrative fat; there’s nothing here remotely comparable to the moonlight skeleton swordfight in Curse of the Black Pearl or the runaway water wheel in Dead Man’s Chest. At World’s End back-loads all the action into a climactic sea battle between the Black Pearl and Davy Jones’ Flying Dutchman on the rim of a swirling vortex, and by that point the film seems so desperate to leave viewers energized that it practically pummels them insensible. A few of the individual elements—including an impromptu wedding in the middle of a grand melee—actually achieve a little sizzle, only to be overwhelmed by whatever Verbinski decides to throw at us next.
The real shame of it is that for all their bombast, the Pirates films at their best will be remembered not for all the CGI-abetted sequences, but for the small comedic showcases for Depp. Every once in a while, At World’s End will stumble upon such a low-key bit of business—like the rivalry between Sparrow and Barbossa manifesting itself in the size of their spyglasses. But for every one of those bits, there’s a decision as ridiculous as giving Elizabeth a rousing speech to the pirate army, and actually playing it with a straight face. No one seemed able to tell Verbinski and company when to stop puffing the film full of grandeur—or that 20 Johnny Depps in one scene isn’t the same as one Johnny Depp used correctly.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END ( * * )
Directed by Gore Verbinski. • Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. • PG-13, 168 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.