It's a cinematic rule of thumb: the further into a series, the worse the film. There are a lot of reasons for this but the primary is that the first film in a series always introduces the characters, the world they inhabit, and the basic tension between them. In the Pirates of the Caribbean series, we first met Johnny Depp's memorable Captain Jack Sparrow in The Curse of the Black Pearl, and it was a delightful film, a fun amusement park ride even more entertaining than the eponymous Disneyland ride upon which it was based.
Then came Dead Man's Chest which was mediocre but still enjoyable in that it let us revisit with Captain Sparrow, Orlando Bloom as the rough and ready blacksmith Will Turner and Kiera Knightly as the lovely Elizabeth Swann. With more than a bit of hubris, director Gore Verbinski filmed Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, the third installment, simultaneously, and it showed. The third installment was a chaotic, incomprehensible mess and even the addition of popular action star Yun-Fat Chow as Captain Sao Feng failed to redeem this dismal, poorly performing sequel.
Indeed, Verbinski quit after the first three Pirates films and part four, On Stranger Tides, is directed by Rob Marshall. There are also significant casting changes: Depp is back as Sparrow, but Bloom and Knightly are both notably absent, the latter replaced by the less talented actor Penelope Cruz, who plays Angelica, daughter of dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
The good news? I enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides much more than I expected. There's a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of storyline, an almost complete lack of the incomprehensible supernatural scenes in At World's End, and a narrative that actually made sense as the film progressed.
The story is a race to the fabled Fountain of Youth, as originally sought by Spaniard Ponce De Leon two hundred years prior to the narrative time of the film. Sparrow (Depp) ends up shanghaid as part of Blackbeard's crew, while recurring foil Captain Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush) heads up the English privateer's vessel, guided by Gibbs (Kevin McNally). The Spanish, meanwhile, have also discovered critical clues to the whereabouts of the Fountain and have sent three ships to the New World, seeking to arrive first.
On Stranger Tides is a long film, over two hours, and it drags in spots as the early scenes seem unrelated to the main story but instead an excuse to slip in a few more entertaining action sequences, but it's definitely better then the second and third films and if you're a fan of the original you'll enjoy this fourth installment.