Summer movie preview

From pirates to apes to Transformers: How hot are this summer's films?

Hollywood's willingness to gamble vast fortunes on the tastes of easily distracted young adults makes one of the most risk-averse industries on Earth. Filmmakers now rely so heavily on sequels, remakes and adaptations of popular franchises that films based on original ideas barely get made anymore. The 2011 summer movie season seems disappointingly free of big, brainy gambles like last year's Inception. This guide considers just how fresh the season's major releases look based on trailers and hype.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20)

The gist: Johnny Depp's swashbuckling Jack Sparrow contends with his leering nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), an exotic femme fatale (Penelope Cruz), the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and mermaids in a race to find the Fountain of Youth.

Fresh factor: The original Pirates was funnier and better acted than anyone had a right to expect, but Tides is still the third sequel to a film based on an amusement park ride. Incidentally, two more films are in development.

How's it look: About the same as the last two.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 26)

The gist: Po (Jack Black) and pals road-trip across China to stop an evil albino peacock (Gary Oldman) with a weapon alleged to have the power to destroy kung fu.

Fresh factor: It's a sequel, but given that Dreamworks may make six total Kung Fu Panda, here's to hoping it'll feel more like a continuation than a retread of the exact same plot.

How's it look: Like another fun chop-sockey comedy.

The Hangover: Part II (May 26)

The gist: Ed Helms' Stu Price plans to get married in Thailand, but he and his friends (Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis) misplace his prospective brother-in-law and once again have to retrace their steps.

Fresh factor: Speaking of retreads of the exact same plot, this Hangover follow-up seems to cut-and-paste key elements from last year's script: the guys find a monkey instead of a lost baby, a face tattoo instead of a missing tooth, etc. At least Bangkok might offer a more unusual location than Vegas.

How's it look: "I can't believe this is happening again!"

X-Men: First Class (June 3)

The gist: In the early 1960s, Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) test society's tolerance for super-powered mutants.

Fresh factor: It's the fourth follow-up (counting X-Men Origins: Wolverine) to the mutant movie franchise based on the popular Marvel Comics series. But this particular prequel explores the falling-out between Magneto and Professor X against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which sounds like it's evolving in the right direction.

How's it look: Like the most thoughtful of this summer's superhero films.

The Tree of Life (June 3)

The gist: Details are sketchy about the latest project from enigmatic director Terrence Malick, but it supposedly involves two parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) vying over their son Jack (Hunter McCracken) in suburban Texas, along with present-day scenes of grown-up Jack (Sean Penn) wondering about his place in the world. Rumor has it that it also involves dinosaurs and the evolution of the universe.

Fresh factor: It's so original, people can't even explain what it's about.

How's it look: Handsome, ambitious and, given the deliberate pace of Malick's other movies, possibly boring.

Super 8 (June 10)

The gist: In 1979, a group of young friends making their own super 8 film in small-town Ohio witness a train crash that may involve some kind of escaped creature.

Fresh factor: Director J.J. Abrams' first film since Star Trek isn't based on anything, but it reportedly pays loving homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg, especially Jaws, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

How's it look: Like a sleek, family-friendly thriller you missed 30 years ago.

Beginners (June 17)

The gist: A retired Los Angeles museum director (Christopher Plummer) comes out in his 70s and wrestles with cancer, to the distress of his son (Ewan McGregor).

Fresh factor: Writer/director Mike Mills heavily based the script on his own family experiences, so it's as original as such a film can get.

How's it look: I've seen it and it's moving, comparable to Hal Ashby's character studies of the 1970s.

Green Lantern (June 17)

The gist: A dying alien chooses swaggering test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) to wield the super-powered ring of an intergalactic police force, the Green Lantern Corps.

Fresh factor: Like Thor, it's based on a long-established comic book character with a cosmic mythology but no history of success in earlier movies or live television shows. So it's more of a gamble than, say, another film about Batman.

How's it look: Each trailer has been less jokey and more impressive than the last, and director Martin Campbell has a proven record with action franchises (Casino Royale, GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro).

Cars 2 (June 24)

The gist: Racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) competes in a round-the-world tourney as tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is mistaken for a spy.

Fresh factor: It's a sequel to Pixar's most formulaic animated feature, so you almost wonder if director John Lasseter wanted to make Cars 2 to get it right the second time.

How's it look: Unfortunately, it resembles the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer without the live-action actors.

Larry Crowne (July 1)

The gist: Tom Hanks directs himself as a downsized, middle-aged man who gets a new lease on life when he goes back to college and connects with a burned-out professor (Julia Roberts).

Fresh factor: Hanks co-wrote the original screenplay with My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Nia Vardalos, so don't expect it to be avant-garde.

How's it look: Like an "inspirational teacher" movie, only the inspirational one is the student.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (July 1)

The gist: The Autobots (you know, the good robots) race with the evil Decepticons to find an alien artifact on the moon. Then there's a big spaceship invasion and exploding buildings and stuff.

Fresh factor: It's Michael Bay's second sequel to the live-action adaptation of the cartoon series based on the popular line of toys. Maybe this film will treat the robots like interesting characters.

How's it look: The trailer has lots of lavish money shots — but so did the trailer of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which was about as noisy and pointless as Hollywood blockbusters get.

Zookeeper (July 8)

The gist: Kevin James of Paul Blart: Mall Cop plays a caretaker at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo who discovers the animals can talk and are eager to give him romantic advice. Adam Sandler produced and voices a Capuchin monkey.

Fresh factor: It was probably pitched as Doctor Dolittle Spends a Night at the Museum, but it isn't based on anything.

How's it look: Like the year's silliest smash. It also makes July 8 look like the weekend you can stay home from the multiplex.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (July 15)

The gist: Harry, Ron and Hermione accelerate their quest to find the sinister Horcruxes (Horcuci?) and end Lord Voldemort's control of the wizarding world.

Fresh factor: As the eighth film in series of book adaptations, it's technically not fresh at all. But it also brings 10 years of build-up to a (presumably) whiz-bang conclusion, so it's should offer scenes you've never seen before.

How's it look: Like the biggest, most epic film in a series, and also the kind of movie could really suffer in 3-D.

Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22)

The gist: During World War II, puny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans as a CGI skinny guy) takes a "super-soldier serum" to become both a physically enhanced commando and a symbol of American resolve.

Fresh factor: Captain America first appeared in comics 70 years ago (before Pearl Harbor, even), but has never been in a decent movie. If director Joe Johnston emulates his 1991 comic book adaptation The Rocketeer, another cliff-hanging period piece, it could be a fun popcorn movie.

How's it look: So far, the trailers convey little beyond the first act of the movie — but it looks like a good first act. But will it feel merely like a prologue to next year's The Avengers?

Cowboys & Aliens (July 29)

The gist: In the Wild West, an amnesiac loner (Daniel Craig) wearing a high-tech bracelet must battle both a powerful landowner (a villainous Harrison Ford) and flying saucers.

Fresh factor: It's based on a relatively obscure graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, although the title kind of speaks for itself.

How's it look: Very entertaining, like director Jon Favreau got his mojo back after Iron Man 2.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug. 5)

The gist: Geneticist James Franco (is there anything he can't do?) tests an Alzheimer cure on primates, only to create a super-intelligent breed of rebellious apes.

Fresh factor: It's the seventh feature film in the franchise and follows in the narrative paw-prints of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but the premise and special effects seem drastically different.

How's it look: Like it has a chance at proving to be the sleeper hit of the summer. Thanks to CGI, the apes have these human expressions that'll give you the willies.

The Change-Up (Aug. 5)

The gist: Jason Bateman's family man and Ryan Reynolds' single Lothario switch bodies and discover than neither has the wonderful life the other thought.

Fresh factor: It's Hollywood's umpteenth body-transfer comedy, although admittedly the characters in Freaky Friday didn't swap minds by peeing in the same fountain.

How's it look: Like yet another Judd Apatow wannabe comedy, but it was filmed locally so you can check out the Atlanta landmarks if it gets boring.

The Help (Aug. 12)

The gist: In 1960s Mississippi, the lives of two African-American maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) intersect with a white college graduate (Emma Stone).

Fresh factor: It's based on the hit novel by Atlanta's Kathryn Stockett.

How's it look: The trailer seems to overemphasize Stone's character's involvement with the Civil Rights Movement (you expect someone to say, "Save us from racism, nice white lady!"). But also looks like a viable Oscar contender.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Aug. 26)

The gist: A young girl (Bailee Madison) moves in with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in a creepy old house that may have tiny monsters living in the walls. Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro.

Fresh factor: The original 1973 made-for-TV horror film is exactly the kind of inventive, half-forgotten project that Hollywood should be remaking.

How's it look: The teaser trailer will scare the crap out of you.