05/20/2011 06:13 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2011

Movie Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides breathes new life into the franchise not just with new characters for the now iconic Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to play off of, but with behind-the-scenes players as well, namely in the hiring of filmmaker Rob Marshall.

No one could ever have predicted that 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would be a success. But it was, earning over $654,000,000 in worldwide box office receipts and its star Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination. The cast signed on for two more sequels to be shot back to back. However when pre-production began on Dead's Man Chest and At World's End, there was no final shooting script in place and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were on location still cobbling the story together. This rush job hardly went unnoticed as critics and fans complained about the convoluted plots and bloated running times of both sequels. Still, audiences came in droves - the entire trilogy has grossed a total of $2.68 billion worldwide - which of course meant Hollywood just had to make another one... in 3D.

In this fourth installment of the Pirates franchise, it's clear that careful thought and consideration was put in to the film to make it interesting, as opposed to just a rehash of the same old, same old.

Now, for the first time, Depp was actually involved in the script. Considering his Captain Jack is the sole reason fans keep coming back to the films, this was an important step in the creation of the plot for Stranger Tides. (Hint: this film is less soggy than its predecessor, with plenty of action taking place on land now.)

Another change was bringing Marshall on board - the first new director to take over the franchise from "same old, same old" Verbinski. Marshall, a veteran of the musical genre, is a natural for Pirates whose action sequences are like big production numbers not unlike those tackled by the filmmaker in his musical features Chicago and Nine.

Marshall pulls out all the stops right off the bat in the opening scene of Tides where Sparrow manages to evade capture that involves, among other things, straddling two moving carriages, jumping on people's heads onto another cart, which then catches fire. Did I mention the fact that during this time he also has time to eat some sort of donut or scone and steal a jewel from an elderly lady while simultaneously seducing her as well... in a moving carriage?

You can also credit Marshall with the idea of adding Penelope Cruz to the cast, having recently worked with her on Nine. The filmmakers and Depp - who last worked with Cruz 10 years ago on Blow - loved the idea.

With Cruz as the beautiful Angelica, Captain Jack gets a love interest for the first time, as well as a worthy opponent who can go toe to toe with him on outwitting, outlasting and outplaying. But don't get your hopes up too high for an actual love story here. Angelica is a former-flame-turned pirate, so a past relationship is implied, but the duo never actually gets romantic. (But really, does anyone actually think Captain Jack would love anyone more than he loves himself?)

Incidentally, the casting of Cruz almost didn't happen. The actress found out she was pregnant shortly before film was scheduled to begin shooting. She told Depp and the filmmakers that she'd understand if they needed to recast. Instead, the production scheduled was rearranged so that most of her scenes were shot first, before her baby bump began to show. Once it did, camera angles were adjusted and Cruz's real-life sister stepped in to do some body double work.

The casting of Cruz could very well work in the film's favor. In a survey conducted by movie ticket website, 61% of respondents picked Cruz as the main reason to see the film (29% said the main factor was 3D). Additionally, 70% of the respondents to the quiz were female. Seeing as how well Bridesmaids has done at the box office, the ladies clearly cannot be ignored when it comes to movies and will likely be an important part of Tides success.

Besides Cruz, there is also a new nemesis, the pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) in a story that revolves around the search for the Fountain of Youth. Jack, Angelica and Blackbeard, along with the crews sent by the King of England and the King of Spain all compete with each other to find it. The entire film leads towards a showdown at its destination, but there is, of course, a lot of conflict along the way. The returning Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is among those in the race and the ongoing bickering relationship between him and Jack remains unabated even as the two are forced to work together.

Tides is a bit darker than the previous three Pirates films. A scene involving mermaids with fang-like teeth veers the film in to horror territory. It's as far as you can get from Disney's other mermaid, the infamous Ariel, but it's also highly original and jaw-dropping.

Since Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly's Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann saw their story lines wrap up in At World's End, a new young couple makes its way in to Tides - a missionary named Philip Swift (Sam Claflin) and Syrena the mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who is captured because her tear is needed as part of the formula to make the Fountain of Youth work.

Very little is revealed about the two characters other than what they are required to do in the present quest. With so little known, and so much left open ended, it's clear this is something that will be explored in greater detail in a subsequent film - and you know there's bound to be more.

Like the other films, Pirates 4 could have used some trimming as it goes on a bit too long. And the 3D, though fun, is not imperative to the film's enjoyment. What is, though, is Keith Richards' cameo appearance as Jack's father, who utters the film's best line that is sure to be a contender for next year's MTV Movie Awards category of Best Line in a Movie.

When Captain Jack asks his father if he's ever seen to the Fountain of Youth, Richards replies: "Does this face look like it's seen the fountain of youth?"

Let's just give Richards the popcorn statuette right now.