LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For the past four years, "Pirates" fans everywhere have been languishing in the doldrums. But relief is finally on the horizon.
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," the fourth movie in the lucrative Disney franchise, sets sail in U.S. theaters on Friday as one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the summer.
Shot for the first time in 3D, Johnny Depp is back as Capt. Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush returns as Barbossa in a new quest -- for the elusive Fountain of Youth -- that involves old rivalries and plenty of new attractions, including beautiful, semi-nude vampire-mermaids and zombie pirates.
Newcomers Ian McShane (the evil pirate Blackbeard) and Penelope Cruz (his bad ass daughter Angelica) take over from Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, while Rob Marshall comes in as director from three-timer Gore Verbinski.
In a summer packed with superheroes and sequels, producer Jerry Bruckheimer said that "On Stranger Tides" is one of the first big adventure films to shoot in 3D on location, rather than against a green screen or entirely on sound stages.
But it's Depp's character, partially modeled after Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (who once again plays Sparrow's father) whose larger-than-life persona holds the enterprise together.
The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise has made $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office so far, and turbo-charged Depp's career.
Depp happily admits that his pirate alter ego has been hard to shake, even in his private life.
"Either fortunately or unfortunately, he's there and he's not too far from the surface kind of at all times, depending on the situation," Depp told journalists.
"I did my best, even to the point of trying to get fired on the first one, but they just couldn't bring themselves to do it. It's kind of interesting to experience that kind of a ride after essentially 20 years of enjoying a career based on failures. And then suddenly something clicks," he said.
Oscar-winner Cruz shot the film while pregnant with her first child. "We did a lot (of our sword fights and stunts) together," the Spanish actress said of her work with Depp. "They were very protective at every moment."
"She was luminescent," added Depp. "She was really glowing the whole time and she already glows, so it was multiplied by a zillion."
Marshall is better known for directing musicals like "Chicago", but said he had little trouble adapting.
"This is a very different genre for me, but once I began working on it, it felt very akin to things I've done before," he said.
"Like most people, I always loved the Disneyland ride, and for me the idea of doing an action/adventure film was incredible. I'm the first in line to see those films during the summer, so as a filmmaker, to change it up from 'Chicago,' 'Memoirs of a Geisha' and 'Nine' was really exciting," he added.
The globe-trotting three-month long shoot began in Hawaii and ended up in London, with stops in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico along the way.
London was the backdrop for the film's opening bravura action sequence, where Sparrow once again barely evades capture.
"It's a very strange little sequence," said Depp. "I've thought of doing many things in my life under the influence of -- (he paused dramatically) -- 'life,' but I've never thought of straddling two carriages while they're moving, and jumping on people's heads and onto another cart, which then catches fire. It's all a bad dream, isn't it?"
Looking ahead to future installments, Depp joked that, "There's a very clever idea that's being hatched in terms of 'Pirates 5 & 6,' where we're actually going to shoot them on the (Disneyland) ride, just going around in circles, non-stop."
Editing by Jill Serjeant