Attack of the mummies, apes, robots and flyboys of summer

Blockbusters set to invade multiplexes everywhere

If you’re a fan of big-budget popcorn movies, the summer of 2001 may leave you feeling a bit like Indiana Jones as he was being chased by the giant rolling rock in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The masterminds at Hollywood’s major studios have made sure moviegoers will have several new big-ticket films to pick from almost every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day this year.

Just as blockbuster pics such as “Mission: Impossible 2,” “Gladiator” and “The Perfect Storm” dominated the summer box office last year, tentpole projects such as “Pearl Harbor,” “A.I.,” “Planet of the Apes,” “America’s Sweethearts” and a record number of sequels — “The Mummy Returns,” “Dr. Dolittle 2,” “Scary Movie 2,” “Jurassic Park 3,” “Rush Hour 2” and “American Pie 2” — should be turning multiplex ushers into Energizer bunnies May through August.

“The big explosion of titles almost sounds like a Hollywood satire of summer films,” says Jess Cagle, Time magazine’s senior editor. “You’ve got everything from a big old-fashioned WWII epic, like ‘Pearl Harbor,’ your remake of a favorite movie with actors in monkey suits (‘Planet of the Apes’), a Spielberg sci-fi movie (‘A.I.’), a vehicle for Julia Roberts and her big smile (‘America’s Sweethearts’) and even a movie with talking animals (‘Cats and Dogs’), which I think is going to be this year’s big sleeper. The trick is that they all sound good on paper.”

This abundance of riches comes at a time when many in Hollywood are nervously awaiting the outcome of labor negotiations with film and TV writers. But many industry observers are predicting that no matter what happens later this year, the summer box office may very well top last summer’s $2.9 billion, and possibly exceed the record $3.13 billion for the summer of 1999, according to Exhibitor Relations.

So what exactly is on the menu this summer?

Sony’s “A Knight’s Tale” has already begun jousting at the box office. This upbeat Heath Ledger vehicle may be set in medieval times, but it has a rocking score (Queen and Thin Lizzy) and a hip, modern attitude.

“It’s a totally fresh title and a great marriage of rock ‘n’ roll and medieval adventure,” says Jeff Blake, Sony’s marketing and distribution topper. He is also quite excited about “The Animal,” the physical comedy starring Rob Schneider and “Survivor” sweetheart Colleen Haskell, which bows June 1.

Among the studio’s other buzz-heavy titles is “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” the bigscreen incarnation of the popular computer game series, featuring state-of-the-art CG humans voiced by Ming-Na (the voice of Disney’s Mulan) and Alec Baldwin. This techie fave is scheduled for July 11.

Julia Roberts’ expanding army of fans will be counting the days for her latest romantic comedy, a tongue-in-cheek look at Hollywood’s publicity machine. Penned by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan and directed by Joe Roth, “America’s Sweethearts” features Roberts as a frumpy (yeah, right) assistant and sister of a self-involved movie star, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Crystal, Hank Azaria and John Cusack round up the cast. The comedy will storm theaters July 20.

Sony wraps up its summer parade Aug. 24 with “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.” The red planet horrorfest pairs Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube.

Fox prexy of domestic distribution Bruce Snyder is equally optimistic about his company’s slate of summer pics. “This is one of the best summer slates we have seen,” he says. “You can’t really find any playdates where you don’t have two or three big films opening at the same time.”

Among Fox’s big guns this year are “Moulin Rouge” (May 18), visual wizard Buzz Luhrmann’s post-modern musical set in 19th-century boho Paris. Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and John Leguizamo all are participants in this much-delayed project.

Summer regular Eddie Murphy will be speaking the language of the animals once again in “Dr. Dolittle 2,” come June 22. The Fox release follows the good doctor as he tries to mate a circus bear (voiced by Steven Zahn) with a she-bear (Lisa Kudrow). The studio then opens the martial arts package “Kiss of the Dragon,” with Bridget Fonda and Jet Li (July 6) and follows it up with “Planet of the Apes,” which is swinging in to town July 27. Riding high on a big built-in audience and a strong marketing campaign, “Planet” stars Mark Wahlberg, Michael Clarke Duncan, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth and is directed by Tim Burton. The Mariah Carey vehicle “All That Glitters” will make a fashionable late-summer arrival Aug. 31.

The Mouse House smoothly glides into the summer with “Pearl Harbor,” the Michael Bay-helmed WWII epic (greenlit at $135 million), starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin and Cuba Gooding Jr. This hard-to-miss title is the only biggie opening May 25. Then, for a complete change of pace, Disney offers “The Princess Diaries,” a light-hearted family pic, with Julie Andrews, Heather Matarazzo and Mandy Moore, directed by Garry Marshall. According to Chuck Viane, senior distribution exec at Disney, “Diaries” is the kind of movie that “hits you right in the heart.”

Among Disney’s other pics are the traditionally animated adventure “Atlantis” (sorry, no songs!), featuring the voices of Michael J. Fox, James Garner and Leonard Nimoy (June 8) and “crazy/beautiful,” an offbeat interracial romance starring Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez.

Universal already has unleashed the forces of Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy Returns,” which finds the original pic’s stars Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz fighting that nasty wrapped villain from Ancient Egypt. Dwayne Johnson (pro wrestler the Rock) makes his bigscreen debut in this special effects-laden adventure.

The studio has an eye on auds with a taste for familiar fare with sequel “Jurassic Park III,” helmed by Joe Johnston and starring Sam Neill, William H. Macy and Tea Leoni (June 18), and the second outing for the “American Pie” kids, which finds the gang fighting sexual temptations after freshman year at college (Aug. 10). The drag-racing street posse movie “The Fast and the Furious,” which stars Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Paul Walker, should qualify for a high-speed viewing experience (June 22).

Favorite gamegirl/action heroine Lara Croft will be ready to take down global villains in Paramount’s “Tomb Raider” June 15. This high-octane adventure features Oscar winner Angelina Jolie acting alongside her dad, Jon Voight, and should push the CG special effects envelope. The studio also will unveil Frank Oz’s one-last-heist pic “The Score,” starring Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton, on July 13. Studio also has Jerry Zucker’s laffer “Rat Race,” with John Cleese and Whoopi Goldberg.

After kicking off the summer with the spooky Jennifer Lopez thriller “Angel Eyes,” (“The Sixth Sense,” anyone?) Warner Bros. will open Dominic Sena’s action-packed “Swordfish” June 8. Pic stars John Travolta as a master criminal and Hugh Jackman as a top hacker. Then things heat up with Steven Spielberg’s robots-have-feelings-too drama “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” based on a script by the late Stanley Kubrick and starring Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment (June 29).

Warner Bros. lets the animated critters of “Cats and Dogs” out of the bag July 4 and follows that up with the feature toon “Osmosis Jones,” a mix of live-action and animation with the voices of Chris Rock and Laurence Fishburne, Aug. 10.

Coming to the celluloid jungle this summer from are DreamWorks are the hip, CG-animated fairy tale redux “Shrek” (in theaters now) and Ivan Reitman’s alienbusters comedy “Evolution” (June 8) with David Duchovny and Julianne Moore, as well as Woody Allen’s new opus “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” with Charlize Theron and Helen Hunt (Aug. 10).

MGM is banking on the Martin Lawrence-Danny DeVito comedy “What’s the Worst That Could Happen,” opening June 1, and John McTiernan’s “Rollerball” remake with Chris Klein and LL Cool J in August.

As for who is going to be the hands-down winner of the hot-weather derby of 2001, film critic Leonard Maltin sums it up: “It’s anybody’s guess. A lot of these films are simply marketing vehicles. They’re going to make a lot of money whether they’re good or bad. The optimist in me hopes that just because these movies are billed as escapist doesn’t mean they have to be necessarily bad!”