A touch of theory: in general, no film comedy should be longer than 105 minutes, no action movie should be longer than 135 minutes, no children's movie should be longer than 90 minutes, and no film with the word "Pirates" in the title should be longer than two hours. In general.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, is longer than two hours. In fact, it is nearly one full hour longer than two hours, and that is simply indecent. It's not as though there isn't 2 hours and 48 minutes worth of plot, for there is. It's that a pirate movie should not attempt to have 2 hours and 48 minutes worth of plot.
Of course, a superfluity of narrative has always been a part of this franchise. As it seemed right to me, I re-watched POTC: The Curse of the Black Pearl and POTC: Dead Man's Chest in preparation for At World's End, and I was struck anew by how unspeakably padded the first film feels, with a solid 40 minutes of completely unnecessary water-treading starting around the 80 minute mark, and by how the second film has a false first act and two hours of exposition.
Now, as I'd hoped for last summer, At World's End is an improvement over Dead Man's Chest for the very good reason that it possesses rising action, culminating in a final forty minutes that contain some of the most exciting fantasy action setpieces that I've seen all decade. But that leaves more than two hours (aka "the running time of Captain Blood") of punishing dialogue sequences, which call to mind another franchise that was born out of a sincere desire to update the classic genre films of long ago with state-of-the-art effects, before turning into a flabby epic of political economics; and when you find yourself reminded of Stars Wars: Episode I while watching a movie, that is a fairly unanswerable argument that the movie you are watching has gone seriously wrong.
That said, there's nothing confusing about the plot, any more than there was in the immediate predecessor, contra the many critics who claim to have been utterly lost in the proceedings. It's just that there's so fucking much plot: first we are in Shanghai, where Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are seeking the aid of Chinese pirate lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) in finding the missing Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Then the whole lot of pirates is thrust into a pitched battle against the ee-vil East Indies Trading Company, still led by the ee-vil Lord Cutlet Beckett (Tom Hollander). Then they escape to the Antarctic, where a needlessly convoluted Map of Everything brings them to the edge of the world.
Meanwhile, Jack Sparrow is in Hell, and quite the Hell it is at that: an expanse of sand and rocks that turn into crabs, with a landlocked ship crewed by dozens of Johnny Depps. It's artsy and poetic, something like Jean Cocteau lite mixed with Luis Buñuel lite, and it has fuck-all place being in a summer blockbuster, but director Gore Verbinski obviously wants to make better movies than Disney will finance, and I salute him in that wish.
Finally, well over a half-hour in, the team of heroes finds Our Jack and they all go back to the world of the living, and that's when the really hard-core Phantom Menace vibe kicks in, as Barbossa summons the Nine Pirate Lords to discuss how best to fight against Beckett and Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), all the time ladling out huge steaming lumps of mythology that really might have worked if they'd been even hinted at in either of the first two films.
At World's End plays fair: it answers every question it raises, unlike Dead Man's Chest, and the scale of the story it tells justifies its length, unlike Curse of the Black Pearl. But that doesn't change that it is a pirate movie, and for two brutal hours there is almost no piracy or swashbuckling to be found. When it hits, it is absolutely the best of the three films, but when it misses, it is endlessly tedious.
All that being true or not, it ignores a key question: what of the Johnny? It was his left-field parody of Keith Richards that made the first film work, after all, and the very concept of a Pirates trilogy would be wholly unsupportable without his presence. Which makes it all the more frustrating that he's relegated to a supporting role, at best, in the current drama. In addition to appearing far too late into the story, he is given nothing at all to do besides spout incredibly nonspontaneous one-liners while Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley and even Orlando Bloom are given more screen time and better character arcs.
This works in the case of Rush, who ends up giving the film its best performance (not so hammy as the first film, but somehow more menacing), but Knightley and Bloom have regressed since Dead Man's Chest, and Bloom in particular has been taken with a terrible case of the blands. I've never liked him - not as Legolas, not in Elizabethtown, and surely not in Troy - and now that screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have gone and given the thin love story of the first two films a tragic element, I can no longer take him or his character seriously, and the strange twists of loyalty he undergoes in the middle hour fail totally.
But I don't want to end on a crabby note, and so I will instead suggest that when Pirates of the Caribbean: Wrath of God or whatever ends up coming out three years down the road, it will maybe not be so bad as that; for the places that At World's End leaves its characters make a sequel seem almost inevitable for some and impossible for others, and it generally puts me in the mind that a fourth entry in the franchise would maybe possibly be a bit lighter on the heavy myth and a bit heavier on the light swashbuckling. That's probably just a foolish hope. Because the myth is heavy here, indeed. At World's End is not bad as such, but it is extremely anti-fun, given the vast cornucopia of details to keep straight. One does not watch this film, one endures it.