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Watching With One "Aye" Shut

May 31st, 2007

Vic and I took in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End this weekend. To my utter lack of surprise, I enjoyed it more than she did. Vic has a low tolerance for films that exceed 90 minutes, and by clocking in at 168, World’s End was almost an entire movie too long for her.

I have less of a problem with overlong movies. I used to say that I didn’t care how long a film took as long as it was good. However, that theory’s been put to the test since 2001, when the dueling releases of the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings chapters made it clear that audiences would once again tolerate two-hour-plus features, just as they did in the ’50s and ’60s. (Of course, the difference between now and the days of the big Cinerama releases and Cecil B. DeMille biblical epics is that they used to have pee breaks.) I’ll admit that World’s End overstayed its welcome. But so did the previous two Pirates, and overall I felt all three offered plenty of entertainment for my movie dollar.

One thing that the Pirates flicks have going for them is ambition. It would’ve been easy enough to simply have Jack Sparrow flounce his way through more pirate shtick for a couple of hours, but instead we get massive set pieces, quirky surrealism, and a freighter full of plot elements. One criticism of World’s End is that it’s too hard to follow, and I’ll agree to the extent that I had some trouble keeping track of who was betraying whom at any given moment. But I felt compensated by the imagination on display, sending viewers over an endless waterfall into the land of the dead.

If Dead Men’s Chest was the series’ The Empire Strikes Back, this one is its Return of the Jedi, with its ragtag rebel fleet staring down a massive armada. Who knew that the East India Trading Company was that badass? Furthermore, as Jedi pulled all that Skywalker family history out of its ass, so World’s End suddenly introduces several major new elements, including the pirates’ Brethren Court (Jack is a pirate lord?) and the backstory of the sea goddess Calypso.

As I noted previously, “these really aren’t pirate movies as much as they are fantasy comedy-adventures in which pirates happen to play some of the central parts.” Now I’d go even further and say that what they resemble most closely are Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films. Not that they stop every 20 minutes for a superfluous stop-motion monster battle, but rather that they overlay their core subgenre (in that case, Arabian Nights fantasy) with a curious mix of elements from various mythologies and other stuff made up of whole cloth. Among the creatures Harryhausen’s Sinbad encountered were a giant walrus, a one-eyed centaur, a saber-toothed tiger and an animated statue of Kali. Likewise, the Pirates setting incorporates zombie brigands, Davy Jones, a kraken, a sea goddess and the Fountain of Youth.

Another curious feature of these films is the extent to which we are meant to root for the pirates. It’s true that they’re a lot more fun than the authority figures on display, but there’s something a little bit off-kilter when emancipated noblewoman Elizabeth Swann makes her stand on behalf of making the world safe for robbers, rapists and murderers. But again, these are pirates in name only.

In the end, I had a good time and look forward to the DVD, where I can fast forward through the backstory and get right to the whirlpool battle.

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