If there was ever a franchise in need of a reboot, Pirates of the Caribbean was it. Sure, the first installment was among the most entertaining movies of the past decade, but let’s be honest… things went steadily downhill from there. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End may have both been ‘okay’ in and of themselves, but compared to the first, they weren’t much more than a bloated, muddled mess. (In the time it would take you to watch them all back-to-back, you could watch Titanic almost 2 and 1/2 times.)

Saying he’d had enough, director Gore Verbinski (who helmed the first three) bowed out of making a fourth. Gone, too, is the vast majority of the cast from the first three; only Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow), Geoffrey Rush (Captain Barbossa), and Kevin McNally (Gibbs) remain. Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are also back, but thankfully they seem to have benefitted from the four-year break since At World’s End.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn’t quite as fun and swashbuckly as the original, but it’s light years ahead of the other two. The story is much simpler, the action (by and large) keeps coming at a good pace, and the addition of Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz gives some new life to what had become a same-old same-old series.

The story this go-round centers on the quest for the Fountain of Youth. Jack, who was headed in that direction at the end of At World’s End, is not only trying to avoid capture at the hands of the Redcoats (in a particularly fun scene with a nifty cameo by Dame Judi Dench), he’s also trying to find a crew and a boat to get the show on the road. At the same time, Barbossa has, well… shuffled on his mortal coil and is setting sail under the flag of King George (Richard Griffiths), who would like a sip from the Fountain himself.

And, oh yeah, the pesky Spaniards are hot on the trail, too.

Along the way, Sparrow reunites with Angelica (Cruz) who he may or may not have ‘had relations’ with years earlier after mistaking her convent for a brothel (wink wink). When he finds himself onboard the boat of none other than Blackbeard (McShane) and then discovers that Angelica is not only the first mate but may actually be the dread pirate’s beloved daughter, well– let’s just say Jack’s not known for his delicate way of handling certain situations.

With that, the race is on. Blackbeard and Sparrow, Barbossa, and the Spanish Armada are all on the hunt for the mystical Fountain, but first they all need to find two chalices and secure a mermaid’s teardrop. The scavenger hunt makes On Stranger Tides feel a bit like a pirate-themed Indiana Jones flick crossed with a splash of The Goonies, but it never really loses any of the magic that made the original Pirates so fun.

Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) may not have been an obvious choice to replace Verbinski, and, in all fairness there are probably a half-dozen directors who could have tightened the proceedings even more (On Stranger Tides is the shortest film of the four, at two hours and 17 minutes), but the fresh blood certainly helped. He knows how to direct flashy action scenes, he’s also smart enough to know where his bread is buttered; he keeps ol’ Captain Jack front and center throughout.

Speaking of which, Depp seems to have only gotten better with age (and time away from Jack Sparrow). After what seemed like a phoned-in job on the last two, he’s definitely gotten his groove back, and he brings Jack (in all his slurry, off-kilter glory) back to life. Cruz, likewise brings a layer that was sorely lacking in the earlier films– a sense of chemistry with Depp; you can tell that the Blow co-stars are jazzed to be working together again.

Elliot and Rossio’s screenplay does still have a tendency to plod a bit, and there are a handful of moments where a nice swordfight (or something) would have been welcome, but it’s hard to complain when On Stranger Tides is so successful at jumpstarting a series that, by all rights, should have been shut away for eternity in Davy Jones’ locker.

Note: Stay through the (interminable) credits for an additional scene that sets up the fifth movie.

3.5/5 stars