Nearly 45 minutes into Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) still hasn’t appeared 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 try to make up for it in a way that summarizes what’s wrong with the movie: when Sparrow finally does show up, it’s with nearly two dozen hallucinatory duplicates. Because apparently there’s nothing that can’t be solved by more, more and—oh yes—still yet more.
Plenty of critics blasted last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 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—overstuffed, over-plotted and, most surprisingly, just plain dull.
And while none of the previous films were textbook examples of streamlined storytelling, at least they were buoyed by an understanding of where the focus needed to be. For one, it needs to be on Depp, who exemplifies the rare franchise built not on a premise, but on a performance. Yet Sparrow not only takes forever to appear but also disappears for other chunks of the film, getting few of the scenes that made him such an engaging creation in the first place.
Meanwhile, Verbinski can’t even provide action with enough zip to counteract the narrative’s fat. At World’s End back-loads all the action into a climactic sea battle between Sparrow’s Black Pearl and Davy Jones’ Flying Dutchman on the rim of a swirling vortex. By that point, it’s so desperate to energize viewers it practically pummels them insensible. A few of the individual elements—including an impromptu wedding in the middle of a grand melee—crank up the sizzle, only to be doused by whatever Verbinski decides to throw into the frying pan next.
Despite all the CGI-abetted sequences, the Pirates films will be remembered best for Depp’s small comedic showcases. And once in a while, At World’s End stumbles on one such 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 moment as ridiculous as buccaneer babe Elizabeth Swan’s (Keira Knightley) straight-faced pep talk to the pirate army. No one seemed able to convince Verbinski and company to stop puffing the film full of grandeur—or that 20 Depps in one scene isn’t the same as one Depp used correctly.