At Criticism’s End: Why ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean: At Word’s End’ Is A Great Conclusion To A Trilogy


Originally published on on September 11th, 2017

After The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released and went on to win 17 Academy Awards, every studio in Hollywood was looking for their “Lord of the Rings” franchise. Along with the success of the Harry Potter movies, studios began quickly trying to imitate both series with films such as The Golden Compass and The Chronicles of Narnia.

While Disney was trying to cash in on both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises with Narnia, they were also attempting to make feature-length adaptations of their Disney World Amusement Park Rides with Country Bears, leading the charge in 2002 to poor reviews and a disappointing box office. This didn’t stop Disney from trying, and the following year, they released the first entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl. This movie was a surprise success at the box office, and Disney suddenly had a potential new fantasy franchise that could be their Lord of the Rings. Work on a sequel was immediately commissioned.

Returning screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Russo decided to turn Curse of the Black Pearl into the first of a trilogy, with the two sequels being shot back to back. Returning was the entire cast, as well as director Gore Verbinski for Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. Both films were released to overwhelming box office success but faced a mixed critical reception.

The third film was particularly criticized as bloated and too long. While I liked Dead Man’s Chest quite a bit, upon first viewing I also found myself agreeing with overall critical consensus regarding At World’s End. However, with revisiting At World’s End, I found a greater appreciation for the concluding act in the trilogy. Perhaps you’ll also find that a review of At World’s End will shift your opinion. The Disney production is a really good film, but also a terrific ending to a great fantasy film trilogy that deserves a second look.

(This article will only concern itself with the third film in the series and its relationship to the first two films. This article will also contain spoilers)

Characters, Story And Themes Over Spectacle

 [Credit: Buena Vista Entertainment]
[Credit: Buena Vista Entertainment]

Summer blockbusters are too often made with the attitude of spectacle first and story and characters second. Sometimes the pure fun of a visual extravaganza can be sufficient for a movie’s success, but more often than not, that approach fails. Interestingly enough, a critique of this trilogy is that falls under that category of these films. This is a criticism that I don’t believe applies to At World’s End. Director Gore Verbinski stated that he wanted the tone of the third movie to be “a character piece,” where the story unfolds because of character actions. The remaining spectacle occurs because of character choices. It is because of this sharp attention to characters that the action, drama, and spectacle become that much more engrossing.

One of the most important components of the story is the completion of character arcs. When Russo and Elliot complete the arcs of different characters they are completing or signifying the larger themes of the films. When At World’s End ends (no pun intended), everyone has gone through a journey from the first film to the last. All the characters reach an end that really feeds into the themes that director Gore Verbinski envisioned:

“I felt it important that the third film was the end of an era – like in a postmodern Western where the railroad comes and the gunfighter is extinct. It seemed that we had an opportunity to take a look at a world where the legitimate has become corrupt and there is no place for honest thieves in that society, so you have darker issues and a little melancholy. The myths are dying. That seemed a great theme with which to complete the trilogy.”

At the beginning of the trilogy Pirates are introduced as the villains and over the course of the series, the screenwriters and director Gore Verbinski expertly shift that perception. The nature of who is bad and who is bad is blurred.

With the nature of good and bad becoming ambiguous, Verbinski and his team of screenwriters also don’t take the easy way out. It would have been easy to turn the pirates into one-dimensional heroes, but they avoid this trope. The characters’ own desires conflict with other protagonists, which leads to conflict amongst each other. This personal conflict leads the protagonists to overcome their affairs in order to battle their common enemies.

What Bloated Length?

[Credit: Buena Vista Entertainment]
[Credit: Buena Vista Entertainment]

At a length of 169 minutes, there are large amounts of time devoted to give each character proper screen time. This is hardly bloated, rather this is giving the characters (and their respective journeys) proper time to play out, while also keeping their stories true to their character. There were moments in Dead Man’s Chest where a viewer could sit back and say they could have trimmed up (the island of Cannibals scene for example), but in At World’s End, there are very few scenes that could be cut without losing a sense of the story and characters. There are even some deleted scenes that the filmmakers could have left in because it would have given the story even more depth.

This movie not only had to act as a stand-alone feature but also as a finale to a trilogy. It is almost baffling to complain about the length of films like this unless you can outline spots where the film drags on or scenes that weren’t necessary.

At The Defense’s End

[Credit: Buena Vista Entertainment]
[Credit: Buena Vista Entertainment]

There are many aspects of this film that could be highlighted as being great: the action scenes are expertly crafted and well-choreographed, the special effects are outstanding (and still after 10 years looks better than most films released today), and composer Hans Zimmer crafted a masterpiece of a film score. Yet even those reasons would not matter if the story, characters, and themes were well-executed. The heart of this film is the characters and the story around them, not the spectacle.

While the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy is far from The Lord of the Rings (then again, aren’t nearly all movies?), it doesn’t mean it isn’t a really good fantasy film trilogy. The movie isn’t perfect, but the small flaws do not affect the whole.

Ted Elliot, Terry Russo and Gore Verbinski should be commended for bringing their trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. Ignoring the horrendous fourth and fifth film in the series and viewing the original trilogy as a singular story will put At World’s End into a greater context. Viewing this finale in this fashion will treat you to a fun, dramatic and well-thought-out fantasy epic that is difficult to achieve on the silver screen. Give At World’s End another look, and you’ll find a much better film than you read about.

What did you think about Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End? Will you be giving it a second look?

One thought on “At Criticism’s End: Why ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean: At Word’s End’ Is A Great Conclusion To A Trilogy

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