When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl came out back in 2003, it was a landmark movie for several reasons. For one thing, it was the first commercially successful pirates movie in just under a decade. Also, it catapulted Oscar nominee Johnny Depp to the level of Box Office Star, instead of cult favorite. Finally, this first movie brought a comic self-awareness to the swashbuckling genre — this movie was more of an adventure comedy than a plain action movie. I think that is what made it a success (well, that and Depp’s iconic performance).

But here we are at Pirates 4. The reviews for Pirates 2 (Dead Man’s Chest) and Pirates 3 (At World’s End) got increasingly worse (though box office intake was still high). Stars Keira Knightley (Atonement) and Orlando Bloom (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) left the series, as did director Gore Verbinski (Rango). The studio hired Oscar-nominated director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and cast Oscar winner Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as a romantic sparring partner for Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow.

On Stranger Tides is all about finding the Fountain of Youth. Jack Sparrow is in London, trying to figure out who is posing as him and assembling a crew to search for the Fountain in his name. His imposter is none other than his former lover Angelica (Cruz), the daughter of the dark magician Blackbeard (Ian McShane, Deadwood). Angelica and Jack Sparrow join together to find it, only to be pursued by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech) who is working for the British Navy. On board with Jack is a young missionary named Phillip (Sam Claflin) who often clashes with Blackbeard’s philosophies. How they find the Fountain and who ultimately drinks from its magical waters forms the rest of the movie.

I have to say that On Stranger Tides is a definitely much, much better than At World’s End. Running 32 minutes shorter than its predecessor, On Stranger Tides has a plot that is much easier to follow than the convoluted, overblown mess in Pirates 3.

Even with that victory, the movie still feels overlong. The romantic subplot with the missionary and the captive mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisby) could have been cut because it doesn’t really add anything nor does it really go anywhere. Also, character motivations are never clear unless we’re always supposed to assume that everyone is greedy and power-hungry. Even as the shortest movie in the series, On Stranger Tides could have been about 20-25 minutes shorter but excessive length seems to be a general problem with this film series (just for fun, I added up the running time of all four movies and it’s a whopping 600 minutes or 10 hours).

Rob Marshall, director of the best musical of the 21st century (Chicago), doesn’t really put his own stamp on the franchise. The movie looks identical to the other ones (which may have been the intent but either way, it’s not a good thing). If you look at the Harry Potter films (which is my favorite franchise), each new director added his own visual flourish to the movie, which gave each one a unique voice and style (Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron single-handedly elevated the movies from fun kiddie flicks to films about a magical world as horrific as it is wonderful). But with On Stranger Tides, Marshall just sort of follows the guidelines set by Gore Verbinski. I wasn’t expecting Bob Fosse-style musical numbers but a little visual uniqueness would have been appreciated.

Performance-wise, this movie doesn’t really offer anything for Cruz to really do other than look beautiful (which she does as always) and act irritated with Jack’s antics. Even when she attempts to sacrifice her life for her father, she isn’t given the opportunity to practice what Pedro Almodovar taught her. At least Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush get to chew a little scenery with their ludicrous characters. But then again, every actor in any of the movies is there to put more attention on Johnny Depp. And I gotta say, I grew a little tired of his Jack Sparrow act. After eight years and four movies, it’s just not fresh anymore.

If you’re a fan of the series, you will definitely enjoy this movie as it is serves up exactly what the franchise is best known for. But unfortunately it still doesn’t improve on the flaws either. If there is a fifth entry and box office gross indicates that there will be, I hope some serious retooling takes place and I also hope they use their editing room as much as possible.