In my review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, I remarked on how grim an early scene was. I had forgotten for a moment that the third movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End opens with a scene in which a child is hung at the gallows for having some kind of association or other with pirates. Sure, we don't actually see the kid dangling from the noose, but it's completely clear that that's precisely what happens.
That's about as grim a scene as I expect we'll ever see from a movie under the Disney banner.
It's not the darkness that really dominates At World's End, though, it's the weirdness. All of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have flourishes of strangeness, but this time out that element comes right to the fore. At times the movie dives headlong into the surreal.
After we get the kiddie-hanging out of the way, we watch as Elizabeth and the freshly-resurrected Barbossa lead the usual band of pirates as they attempt to rescue Will from Jabba's palace - whoops - I mean Singapore pirate lord Sao Feng's hideout. The East Indian Trading Company (presumably way outside of their jurisdiction) raids the joint at the same time and the pirates all wind up teaming up to escape, then head out to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow from the land of the dead.
Too many Jacks.
In one of my favorite conceits of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, we learn that the old notion of the world being flat is actually true, and the crew sails off over the world's end to head to what is both literally and figuratively the other side. The truly surreal bit follows as we spend quite a while alone with Captain Jack in the underworld. It's a bleached-out wasteland where Jack has gone utterly mad, hallucinating a crew made up entirely of his duplicates. It's hard to tell if this is all meant to mean something or if the filmmakers are over-doing it in their attempt to fill the audience's desire for more Captain Jack Sparrow. Eventually Jack reunites with the rest of the pirate clan, and after a trippy flip of The Black Pearl, we're back to just the regular level of weirdness.
From here on out the scope of the movie expands to truly epic proportions. Pirate lords from around the globe gather. Becket, Sparrow, Turner, and Jones deal and betray and counteract one another in a variety of combinations that would be impossible to follow without a treasure map. The pirate lords free Calypso (trapped in the human form of Tia Dalma, surprising no one), and a massive final battle takes place amongst a raging storm. The pirates (our bloodthirsty, thieving good guys) prevail over the Trading Company, though not without a terrible cost or two.
Will and Elizabeth get a bittersweet finale. Barbossa gets the Pearl, but Jack gets the map to the fountain of youth, and we're left with the promise of future adventures to come.
Frankly, it all become a bit of a mess. By the third movie, Sparrow had gone from a risky, oddball creation to a genuine pop culture icon, and so his status in the movie has raised too. If you like Jack, the movie seems to reason, you'll love a screen filled with 50 Jacks!
Lots of new characters.
Meanwhile the menagerie of supporting characters must all be given their due as well. Barbossa is back (and boy do you realize how much he was missed in the second), and must be given lots to do. Will and Elizabeth's story must come to a satisfying romantic conclusion. Pintel and Ragetti must have their comic bits. Davy Jones is to be reckoned with. And there's Norrington, and Becket, and Governor Swan, and Tia Dalma, and Gibbs, and MAN there are a lot of characters fighting for screen time! Then there's the newcomers - Chow Yun Fat joins the cast as Sao Feng, Kieth Richards shows up for an enjoyable cameo as Jack's dad, and there's the large group of pirate lords.
Dirty dealing, double-crosses, and uh... it gets confusing.
As I said before, the double dealing and backstabbings that had been prevalent, but coherent in the previous outings here become convoluted and confusing. The weirdness gets weirder, the fights grow longer, the scale is enormous. The whole thing just gets bogged down by its grand ambitions.
There's still a wild spark at the center of the whole thing that keeps me interested and entertained. The performances continue to be delightful, especially Geoffery Rush as Barbossa. The scene of him performing Will and Elizabeth's wedding amidst a fierce sea battle and howling with crazed laughter as he pilots the Pearl on the edge of a massive whirlpool and perfect pulp adventure fun.
Maniacal fun with Hector B.
And I have to admire a big-budget multi-million dollar franchise that has the guts to be unapologetically weird. It might not always work, but I'm happy they're willing to try.
In the end, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End leaves me feeling like I've been tossed about on a wild ride: it's dizzying, confusing, even a little exhausting, but it was still and awfully fun ride.
I give Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End 7 out of 10 mice:
Captain Jack sails off into the sunset.