As Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides began to take shape, we heard repeatedly that this fourth installment in Disney’s massively successful franchise would be a more streamlined and focused adventure than the previous two sequels.

Borrowing elements from Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides, Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is supposed to be closer in spirit to the original film, Curse of the Black Pearl, in that it tells a stand-alone story of pirate plundering with a supernatural twist – specifically, Captain Jack Sparrow’s search for the Fountain of Youth.

We’ve seen a teaser trailer and poster, but fans will get their first real look at On Stranger Tides when the trailer debuts online Monday, December 13th (don’t forget to enter our “Pirates Fans First!” contest for a chance to watch it live and in 3D at an exclusive premiere event).

Early buzz suggests that director Rob Marshall has delivered a film that’s quite good, and if this latest report from Drew over at HitFix is any indication – Disney thinks so too. Evidently, the studio is ready to set sail on Pirates of the Caribbean 5 & 6:

HitFix can now exclusively report that Disney has begun quietly telling cast and crew to set aside a major block of time in the very near future so they can shoot “Pirates 5″ and “Pirates 6.” And, yes, once again, they will be shooting them back-to-back as one giant film, and then they’ll release them as two films.

Obviously this is the same strategy that was employed for Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. Regardless of what fans thought of those films, they did big business at the box office and Disney saved quite a bit of cash by filming them back-to-back. As far as they’re concerned – that formula works.

Although his involvement in future sequels was previously called into question, it looks like Johnny Depp will appear in the next two sequels. In fact, his busy schedule was probably a large factor in this decision. HitFix theorizes that Disney will want Depp back in command of the Black Pearl as soon as he wraps up The Lone Ranger for them sometime next year.

I know the initial reaction here might be some groaning or eye-rolling. Perhaps this appears to be a one step forward, two steps back, situation. Just when it looked like the franchise was getting back on track by dropping played-out supporting characters and bringing in some new blood, they revert right back to their old ways.

But you know what’s incredibly encouraging about this development? It’s the latest piece of evidence that implies Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides turned out really, really well.

Obviously, Disney’s desire to get everyone locked in for sequels before On Stranger Tides has even been released speaks to the film’s quality – but so does Depp’s willingness to participate in further Jack Sparrow adventures. Coupled with his interest in re-teaming with Rob Marshall for a remake of The Thin Man, it seems to me like he’s pretty pleased with the way the film turned out.

Disney was obviously very aware of the criticisms hurled at the last two Pirates movies. It really seemed to inform their approach to On Stranger Tides. As long as they don’t make the mistake of retroactively refitting this film into the first chapter of a new trilogy, I’m totally up for this. I’ve always thought that if they took a cue from the Indiana Jones series and concentrated on singular stories, this franchise could have serious legs.

Depp obviously really loves the Jack Sparrow character and the studio clearly loves the money he’s made for them. Hopefully audiences will be just as interested.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides arrives in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D theaters in the U.S. on May 20th, 2011.

Source: HitFix.