Pirates of the Caribbean : Colonialism Lurks Between Film's Carefree Veneer of Fiction

In two words, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, is a children's movie. It's full of cartoonish violence and slapstick horror, a landscape that's peopled by a doe-eyed (and, one could say, heading toward vapid) couple, and a rambunctious monkey -- all the necessary elements of a kid-pleasing summer flick. As Disney franchise films go, though, there are several elements of this one that will sail over the heads of most children who go to see it. At first pass, the undercurrents of serious subject matter are interesting (and potentially eye-opening for the kids) -- until one really comes to terms with the clunky and shallow manner in which these subjects are treated.

A serious thread of criticism of colonialism lurks beneath the film's carefree veneer of fiction. Anyone who has studied even the smallest bit of Occidental history will be aware of that, but the film actually takes conscious care to depict some of it. In a climactic scene, the British colonial forces are allied directly in battle against the pirates (on whom our sympathies are trained) rather than spending most of their time on the docks or in the fancy sitting rooms. Using devices like this one, the filmmakers pointedly sketch their distaste for these characters; their commentary is at its most obvious with the camera's clear shot of the East India Company logo floating limply in the water, post-battle.

Very regrettably, though, the film gives no hints of the control and violence to real people that came along with international trade à la colonial power. In fact, we don't even get to see real people in this film in the form of characters, other than the backdrop residents of the smoky Singapore underworld. Director Gore Verbinski and the writing team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio step back from the opportunity to match the supernaturally-fueled, fictional violence of the battle scenes with real commentary on the ravages of greed on the backdrop of history.

Even for a movie overfull of white, European faces, race and intercultural relations are portrayed -- but weakly, at best. The ragtag pirate crew counts among its numbers a few non-white faces, and even the council of pirate lords has a black man and an Asian woman (two aspects of diversity for the price of one!) The depth really stops there. We get interracial romance, but the character of the black woman in question, Tia Dalma, was literally constructed, and, I would argue, could just as easily have been not black. The national origin that makes her different from every other character in the film is sketched out merely through a thick Caribbean accent, which, as several reviewers have pointed out, is at times incomprehensible. If the trained ears of adults can't decipher it, what are we to expect of children? The whole arc of Tia Dalma's character would soar overhead and escape understanding, effectively masking any elements race relations that a child might otherwise perceive.

The freshest and most interesting element of the Pirates films is, as twice before, Johnny Depp's performance. His unstable, insinuating, daring creation of a pirate like none of the others brings fiction to full life, and slips in sly references to homoeroticism and bohemianism. Elements like these, that were subtle and refreshing about his performance in the first two films, have been made less lusterful by the overt way in which it's staged. The script takes Sparrow's free spirit and bogs it down in reason: he's wacky, in this film, because he's imprisoned in Davy Jones' locker. One could argue that the first two films do the same thing, anchoring his personality in the time he spent in exile marinating in rum - but in At World's End, even Sparrow's oddest moments are wrapped in too much exegesis. The character's wit is still there, as is the delightfully swishy movement, and I don't place any fault for the stale staging on Depp -- but the fact is that predictability is the driving force in this film, shading over the sparks of quirkiness. There are few better cases in point in the film than Keith Richards' awkward appearance as Sparrow's father, thoroughly dampening the post-modern intrigue of writing the inspiration of an actor (Depp) into a film with which said actor can interact; I would need another viewing of the film to further reconcile my expectations with what I got.

So, what will children take away from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, if not a penchant for post-colonial awareness, racial discrimination analysis, and boho veneration? They'll get what they usually get from kids' movies: laughs, screams, maybe a few sighs, and the desire to purchase the many action figures that are wrapped up in the franchise. Deep thoughts and pieces of eight don't seem to dovetail that well -- at least not in this film.