When last we sailed, dear reader, I said, "Will somebody hide the damn rum?" Bad idea. In point of fact, rum should be mandatory for every man, woman, and child misguidedly attempting to make sense of the frantic Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Okay, perhaps that's a tad extreme. But since the only two people who seem to be having any fun any more in this manic franchise are Johnny Depp—as flouncy, besotted pirate Captain Jack Sparrow—and Keith Richards—as his near-embalmed pop—maybe straight isn't the best way to appreciate the latest Jerry Bruckheimer maelstrom.
"The Maelstrom" is this installment's biggest setpiece, as exhausting as it is impressive, At Picture's End (sorry, folks, "Franchise's End" is too much to hope for). The stormy showdown of the scrappy pirates versus the fleet of the evil East India Trading Company marks the end of nearly three hours (or seven and a half hours, in entirety) of melodrama, mechanical action, inventive comedy from Depp, and shameless stupid pet tricks from a monkey. Through it all, Gore Verbinski has shown a certain visual flair but within the Bruckheimer style sheet--if Verbinski and Michael Bay are the next Spielbergs and Lucases (and they are), we're in a lot of trouble.
The plot, for those daring enough to consider it, involves every major character's overlapping selfish motives as the pirate's Brethren Court meets to determine what to do about the East India Company. Chow Yun-Fat shows up as one of the nine pirate lords, though his character proves mostly pointless, and Tom Hollander returns as Lord Beckett, East India's nasty prime mover. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio seem to want to say something about hard-working, fierce independence ("by the sweat of our brows and the strength of our backs," sums up Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa) over corrupt corporations.
But the Disney banner is hardly a Jolly Roger, and the pirates make their living by straight-up thieving. And then there's this film's opening scene, in which pirate-sympathetic working-class folk are being hung by East India, as a crier announces recently suspended rights—right to assembly, right to habeus corpus, right to legal counsel, right to verdict by peers—before warning that piracy or association with pirates is punishable by death. The ill-advised but clearly pointed parallel to modern politics hopelessly muddies the waters by suggesting the anarchic pirate "terrorists" don't just have more fun, but are crying-on-the-inside heroes by comparison to the heartless, evil Man. Elliott and Rossio have drifted fatally from the relatively clear amiable naughtiness, humorous anti-heroism, and jocular villainy of the first Pirates film.
Kids won't have any more luck just trying to understand the lumbering plot, which is needlessly complicated for a pirate picture. The picture's hollowness is apparent from the first mirthless, thrillless battle scene, which resembles nothing so much as one of those amusement-park stunt shows. Perhaps the best emblem of the franchise is Bill Nighy's Davy Jones wiping away a digital tear. Three plus-sized movies and it's still impossible to care about anything happening to any of these characters. In another unintentionally funny visual motif, the stiff-upper-lip Brit soldiers no longer bat an eyelash at strange fish-men all around them (frankly, the special effects have always been the supernatural rub of what could have been a simpler resurgence of swashbuckling adventure).
The film is only bearable when it's vaudevillian, which means that kids will latch onto Depp like floating driftwood salvation. With renewed energy, Depp nearly single-handedly saves the whole mess with whimsy that he's clearly helping to guide. As Sparrow's comic rival, Geoffrey Rush makes a good foil, but the wan, model-like ingenue-ity of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom again proves little help. (If you make it to the end, hang on a while longer for the post-credits scene that ties a bow on this (gulp) initial trilogy.)
Watching Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, my thoughts couldn't help but stray to a movie that was unfortunately well ahead of its time. Considered a runaway production at the time (with a budget north of $40 million in 1989, compared to At World's End's $300 million plus), Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the movie Depp wishes he'd been making for the past four years: grand, outsized adventure with a great sense of humor but (wait for it...) good taste. With good pacing, spectacle with perspective, and a clear moral, it's the sort of movie kids should be watching right now instead of this compromising, heavily marketed Disney product. Parents, you have your marching orders...to the video store and not off the cineplex plank.