Watching “At World’s End,” Disney’s latest entry in the ongoing misadventures of Capt. Jack Sparrow, it’s easy to forget that the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” was inspired by something as simple as a theme-park ride. Four years later, the franchise has morphed into a labyrinthine juggernaut, with each successive story more convoluted than the last.
And yet, in the end, there’s an anchor that keeps this ship from drifting too far astray — Sparrow, a rogue charmer who, in Johnny Depp’s capable hands, has emerged as one of the truly iconic characters of the last decade.
Sparrow is once again at the center of the “Pirates” universe, though he’s hardly alone: Back for more plundering are the resurrected Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the dashing Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), who has become quite the accomplished pirate in her own right. Among the newcomers, most notable is Jack’s leathery father, played with sufficient menace by Keith Richards.
Picking up where “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” left off, Barbossa, Will and Elizabeth set off in search of Capt. Jack, held captive by the fearsome Davy Jones (the peerless Bill Nighy), whose freakish locker is a surreal mix of hell and purgatory. Hot in pursuit is the Machiavellian Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), commander of the British navy and head of the East India Trading Company, whose dream is to see all pirates sent to the gallows.
Those who considered “Dead Man’s Chest” a long and over-complicated affair will undoubtedly find similar fault here. At nearly three hours, “At World’s End” is rife with self-indulgent subplots and characters whose motivations are murky at best. Once again, Capt. Jack sets the tone, with his tipsy musings and genially subversive bent, and though he’s hardly lacking in charisma, the same cannot always be said for Will, his sometime sidekick.
Throughout the “Pirates” saga, Bloom has played the straight man (in more senses than one, perhaps) to Depp’s flamboyant cad, a thankless but necessary task. The screen is barely big enough for one Jack Sparrow, much less the small army of them director Gore Verbinski unleashes in one of the film’s funniest and most imaginative sequences. Nevertheless, it comes as a sobering development that “At World’s End” devotes so much time to Will’s ever-confusing quest to save his father (Stellan Skarsgard). He cheats, lies and sells out his friends, much as Sparrow does, though never with the same hedonistic zeal.
Still, there’s enough swashbuckling bluster to keep the action fast and reasonably engaging, albeit bewildering. More than “Dead Man’s Chest,” this third installment of the “Pirates” franchise ties up plenty of loose ends, yet it leaves the door ajar for a fourth — all the more likely given the saga’s box-office clout and Depp’s surprisingly adamant desire to do more with his character.
Is that a good thing? I think so. “At World’s End” will be greeted with yawns by some, but it’s colorful, visually arresting and endlessly creative, even with all the excess baggage. Yes, it could stand to be shorter, with a bit less exposition and more of the swordplay that made the original such an unexpected delight. But it provides a rousing (if only temporary) conclusion to Verbinski’s over-the-top trilogy.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ***
Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Bill Nighy
Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Running time: 2 hours, 48 minutes