Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (PG-13)
Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
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 try to make up for this inexplicable oversight in a way that ultimately summarizes everything that's wrong with the movie: They populate Sparrow's first scene with approximately two dozen hallucinatory duplicates of him.
Last summer, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest phenomenally followed up the 2003 original. It was a fine mix of energetically choreographed adventure and an enthusiastic reprisal of Depp's Sparrow. At World's End, however, turns out overstuffed, over-plotted and, most surprisingly, just plain dull.
It's possible, though, to stay awake during At World's End simply by trying to keep track of the several hundred plot threads drifting through this thing. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (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 Skarsgard), 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 we're introduced to 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 were textbook examples of streamlined storytelling, but at least they understood 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 first appear, but he disappears for other chunks of the film as well. He gets too few of the kinds of scenes that made him such an engaging creation. Instead, ample time is given to the now-pouty romance between Will and Elizabeth. And the next time anyone describes their relationship as the key element in the series will be the first time.
Unfortunately, Verbinski can't provide his action pieces with enough zip to counteract the narrative fat. A few of the individual elements including an impromptu wedding in the middle of a grand melee actually achieve a little sizzle, but they're only overwhelmed by whatever Verbinski decides to throw at us next.
The real shame of it is that for all their bombast, the Pirates films will be remembered not for all the CGI-abetted sequences, but for the small comedic showcases provided for Depp. Every once in a while, At World's End will stumble upon such a low-key bit of business, but for every one of those bits, there's a ridiculous decision ruining it, like allowing Elizabeth to give a rousing speech to the pirate army and actually playing it with a straight face.
It seems no one told Verbinski and company when to stop puffing the film full of grandeur or that using 20 Johnny Depps in one scene isn't the same as using one Johnny Depp correctly throughout. firstname.lastname@example.org