There was a joke that went about in the early 1980s, just as video bootlegging started making the headlines, which ran: “I just got a pirate copy of E.T. on tape, but it’s not the same watching the little guy hopping around on a wooden leg with an eyepatch and a parrot on his shoulder!” Boom, boom! Drumroll, please…I thank you!

Which brings us, rather dubiously, to my comments on the third big hitter of this summer’s own trilogy of threequels. After Spidey and Shrek left us with the feeling of “more of the same”, how does Sparrow measure up in Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End? Pretty well, as it happens, when he’s actually on screen, which never seems quite enough. I have to admit to really only warming to the first Pirates on the second time I saw it. I’d appreciated the way they had developed the original Disney ride into something that worked as a movie and created new compelling characters to go along with it, but it didn’t capture me as much as I’d hoped. I saw it twice in the theater and by the time of my second viewing on DVD I’d grown to find it a decent slice of escapist entertainment.

Pirates 2 I loved from the off: the cliff-hanging cages that the crew have to spin to get back to safe land, the sword fights atop the freewheeling wheels, the Kraken… It was pure adventure of a gloriously old-fashioned time, with strong hints of Walt’s own Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, brought bang up to date with today’s special effects trickery.

And so, like the rest of world, I waited with anticipation for Pirates 3, released today as At World’s End in theaters worldwide. What I like about the Pirates movies is their Lord Of The Rings-styled unwillingness to pander to those who haven’t seen the previous installments, the way good sequels should be. In fact, even if you have seen the last two Pirates you may still be in for a lot of confusion as the plot swings wildly from heroes to villains. Throughout the many twists and turns which see deals done between various parties on both sides, characters double, triple and quadruple cross each other and pretty much all have underlying plans that they keep secret from not only themselves but the audience too! Indeed, by the end of the its just shy of three hours running time, I didn’t care who was on whose side and was doing what for whatever reasons, I was just too busy goggling at the expansive, highly enjoyable nonsense of a major movie that justly confirms Disney’s big player status back on the map!

Like many of the threes this summer, Pirates tries to pack a ton of story threads in, though unlike those other films, it has the depth and substance in place to carry it through. In fact it may have too many layers and if there’s anything that can be leveled against At World’s End it is the over talky nature and convoluted plot involving the gathering of the Pirate Lords to stand up against the corrupt East India Company that ultimately takes away from the screen time of any really memorable action sequences. There also seems to be a hole where the incredible Kraken scenes came in Dead Man’s Chest and rather than try to do anything to top that creature, things take a swing away to avoid the potential problem of not coming up with the otherworldly goods that worked so uniquely in the first (the skeleton crew) and second. So Jack’s return from the dead isn’t the frightfully arduous journey from the watery dungeon that we probably all imagined Davy Jones’ Locker to be. Instead we find him cast away at a salty nowhere land where the hot sun has driven him mad to the point where he sees the entire crew of his ship as multiple Jacks! This introduction is funny, exceptionally well created and played, but it’s pretty much the only (and short) place he has to shine once Barbossa and company drop in.

While the film is never anything less than entertaining, it didn’t quite make the top grade as number two did with me. I’d probably place it above the first since, even though it’s a good half hour longer, it never felt like it dragged throughout its duration. There’s just too much going on at any one time to lose interest! This also has the effect of reducing sequences down…Jack’s grand entrance on the Black Pearl is astonishing to look at but would have made a barnstorming ride sequence of its own rather than the paltry handful of shots that play too much like the first film. Several scenes, which feel as if they have been cut short to shave of length, could have done with some more one-liners too: when Jack pulls out his telescope to find it’s nowhere near the length of Barbossa’s it really did need Mackenzie Crook’s supporting character to explain the obvious “telescope envy” gag, but it never came. It wouldn’t have been out of place: At World’s End is easily the most adult of the Pirates movies, with hangings, people getting shot in the head and sword deaths aplenty, all apparently within the PG-13 guidelines, but surely pushing an R rating at any moment.

Technically, it’s superb, of course, with Industrial Light And Magic again floating the high seas of visual effects, apart from some early shots of Davy Jones, whose limping walk seemed a little stiff. The trip to World’s End doesn’t warrant the title, since the movie isn’t really about that, the sequence is over in a matter of minutes, and much greater things are still to come, but it all looks thrilling thanks to ILM. It’s been established before that Jack’s been to Australia, meaning we’re certainly set in a time when they knew the world was round, so quite where World’s End is to be found is conveniently glossed over. Despite two massive sequences (the end battle especially) there are no other big creature moments, something that felt lacking after the power of the Kraken sequences in the last film (the end of which is explained all too briefly here).

Likewise, there’s a lack of humor apart from the odd bit of Jack genius, even though Johnny Depp plays his character with more grounding, the one thing I was leery of in Dead Man’s Chest, where I felt he verged dangerously on the edge of portraying Sparrow in parody. For the most part, the cast and crew slip back into their old roles with ease. Over-eager but dashing Orblando Bloom and overrated Keira Knightley, who often looks bored, are as frankly wooden as long planks as before, and she especially has to deliver a rousing speech that comes off more like someone had to poke her into doing it. However, their characters’ arcs are oddly satisfactorily resolved even though things don’t end as planned or anticipated – be sure to stick around post credits for a good “what happens next” chunk that sincerely ties up their story, leaving Jack and Barbossa to battle it out over the fate of the Black Pearl in a sure to be fourth picture.

Gore Verbinski may need a rest before then…much of this Pirates adventure could have been helmed by any SFX-savvy director, and to an extent he seems to be going through the motions. Composer Hans Zimmer does the same, not really expanding any new thematic material, while not rehashing the much loved Jack Sparrow theme either. Of the new faces, Chow Yun-Fat makes the biggest impression during his fairly brief scenes, but the Chinese angle does lend the film a new fresh look of its own. Perhaps most disappointing was the use of Naomie Harris’ Calypso, whom we are led to believe holds some almighty power, but when it is finally unleashed she just grows massive in size, dissolves, and is…gone! Much better is Geoffrey Rush’s immensely enjoyable Cap’n and Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ highly publicised appearance as Captain Teague, who we must assume is Sparrow’s Dad. He comes out of it surprisingly well, with a real presence that pays off with a nice joke about his wife.

By now, these ships sail themselves and if there is a fourth outing, there’ll have to be some kind of shake-up to prevent the kind of rot that’s been setting into other franchise’s thirds, but this Pirates movie just about scrapes through and holds off too much familiarity. It’s a jumbled, thoroughly entertaining splashy smorgasbord, with shipshape production values and tight pacing, though while it contains a lot of spirited spectacle it’s perhaps a little short on the real magic that came before.

As big and broad in scope as the second but more keeping in tone with the first, the story sometimes has trouble registering and characters fight to make their mark, which is usually what happens as a result of setting sail without a completed script. But At World’s End doesn’t make the mistake of not living up to its previous incarnations, being that rare thing: a worthy three that returns to its roots but packs in what it has learned works along the way. Big summer fun that’s sure to be the hit of the season!

Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End
Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films
169 minutes
Rated PG-13
directed by Gore Verbinski