LOS ANGELES -- A boy wizard, a student superhero and a newlywed ogre walk into a movie theater ...
No matter the punch line, Hollywood studios hope to laugh all the way to the ticket counter on the strength of those characters, lead players in the summer movie season's big three: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Spider-Man 2" and "Shrek 2."
The computer-animated follow-up to 2001's blockbuster "Shrek" reunites the voice talents of Mike Myers as the lovable ogre, Cameron Diaz as his newly "ogrified" bride and Eddie Murphy as their motormouth donkey pal. The sequel debuts just before Memorial Day.
Arriving a couple of weeks later is the third "Harry Potter" flick, with Daniel Radcliffe returning as the young sorcerer, this time sought by a murderous wizard who escapes from a prison for conjurers.
And for Fourth of July weekend comes "Spider-Man 2," the film that has the best chance of catching "The Passion of the Christ" as 2004's biggest moneymaker. "Spider-Man" shattered box-office records with a $114.8 million opening weekend in 2002 and went to become the year's top movie with $404 million.
The sequel pits Spider-Man against villain Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). Complicating matters, while moonlighting as a superhero, Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker is coping with life as a frazzled college kid, working two jobs and pining over girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).
"He's a relatable superhero. He's a normal kid or human being who happens to be bitten by a spider," said Maguire of the gawky teen whose encounter with an irradiated arachnid gives him awesome powers. "He's a kid who goes through the usual stuff. Girl problems. ... His own selfish desires versus a greater responsibility. Questions we might all ask ourselves if we were in his position."
The summer season gets rolling in early May with "Van Helsing," the latest from writer-director Stephen Sommers, who scored hits in the same release date with 1999's "The Mummy" and its 2001 sequel "The Mummy Returns."
Sommers again borrows from the classic Universal horror tales of the 1930s, this time setting Bram Stoker's vampire hunter Van Helsing ugh Jackman) and a beautiful ally (Kate Beckinsale) against Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster.
While sticking to movie-monster iconography (Frankenstein's creation still has a flat head and bolts in his neck, for example), Sommers sought to add human dimensions to each creature.
So Dracula's an immortal longing to father a true heir, Frankenstein's monster is a brutish outcast akin to Lenny from "Of Mice and Men," and the Wolf Man's "very much like an alcoholic or drug addict. He could be your best friend or neighbor, very noble and upright during the day, but at night ...," Sommers said.
"Anybody could make a movie about Van Helsing taking on the three monsters and killing them one at a time," Sommers said. "But I think we came up with a really fun story going beyond that and interweaving all the characters."
"Shrek 2" interweaves some new fairy-tale characters, including Puss-in-Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) and the ogre's disapproving in-laws (Julie Andrews and John Cleese) - parents to Diaz's Princess Fiona.
"The parents' expectation is that Fiona would have met a handsome prince and stayed beautiful and lived happily ever after, so they are understandably a bit shocked when they meet Shrek," said Andrew Adamson, a director on both "Shrek" movies. "It's almost like a Shakespearean farce."
The third "Harry Potter" reunites key cast members, including Radcliffe as the title wizard and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as his chums at Hogwarts School. Michael Gambon signs on as school patriarch Dumbledore, inheriting the role from the late Richard Harris, while Gary Oldman plays the escaped wizard.
Alfonso Cuaron took over as director from Chris Columbus, who oversaw the first two movies and remained a producer on the third. At two hours and 15 minutes, "Prisoner of Azkaban" is by far the shortest yet in the series, troubling news to young fans who want every stitch of action from J.K. Rowling's books translated to the screen.
With the first two films setting the stage, though, Cuaron was able to leap right into the action for the third, Columbus said.
"It's always a double-edged sword. Every kid who saw the movies wanted them to be longer and almost every adult wanted them shorter," Columbus said. "But I think this movie is so good that I don't think you'll get a lot of gripes."
Other action adventures for summer include "Troy," a tale of the ancient siege starring Brad Pitt as Greek warrior Achilles; the global-disaster flick "The Day After Tomorrow," with Dennis Quaid; Halle Berry's "Catwoman," featuring the DC Comics' character; an update of "The Manchurian Candidate," starring Denzel Washington; "Collateral," with Tom Cruise in the story of a hit man on a killing spree; Jackie Chan's "Around the World in 80 Days," a reprise of the Jules Verne classic, featuring a bit part by Arnold Schwarzenegger; and "I, Robot," with Will Smith in an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's tales.
Smith plays a detective in 2035, when robots have taken over trash-collecting, working mines and other grunt jobs to free humanity for higher pursuits. A man who mistrusts technology, Smith's character is on the trail of a robot he thinks committed a murder, an impossibility under Asimov's robot rules.
"We took the basic gist of the stories, that there are three laws of behavior that prevent robots from injuring human beings or allowing human beings to be injured," Smith said. "Because my character's had a bad experience with robots, he doesn't trust the three laws. Something intuitively in his mind tells him that the three laws don't work."
While "I, Robot" depicts a world moving toward technological perfection, "The Day After Tomorrow" presents a planet wracked by global warming, which causes cyclones, deep freezes, squalls and other catastrophes.
"This is the ultimate disaster movie," said Quaid, who plays a climatologist trying to save the world. "It's got everything. Tornadoes, floods, tidal waves, blizzards, hail storms with hail the size of bowling balls."
Also coming this summer: "King Arthur," starring Clive Owen as the legendary English ruler and Keira Knightley as Guinevere; "The Village," the latest creepfest from M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs"), starring Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody and William Hurt; the monster smackdown "Alien Vs. Predator," featuring the two extraterrestrial beasts; "The Chronicles of Riddick," with Vin Diesel back as the sci-fi anti-hero from "Pitch Black"; "Thunderbirds," starring Bill Paxton in a live-action update of the cult TV puppet series about future rescue pilots; and "The Bourne Supremacy," with Matt Damon returning as the amnesiac spy from "The Bourne Identity."
Damon's Jason Bourne this time is framed for murder and on the run, and though his memories remain cloudy, he continues to find he possesses just the right skills to get out of any scrape.
"One of the hurdles we had on the first one was just the way I look. I don't look like your classic action guy," Damon said. "What we decided is, the more things I could do, the more believable and credible the character would be and the better the ride would be for the audience. So we just wanted to put me in as many situations as possible."
Lighthearted summer films include: "Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement," starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews in a follow-up to their 2001 summer hit; "The Stepford Wives," with Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Christopher Walken in a black-comedy remake of the 1970s hit; "Garfield," a live-action and computer-animated adaptation of the comic strip, with Bill Murray providing the fat cat's voice; "Shall We Dance?" starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon in a remake of the Japanese film about a businessman who falls in love with formal dancing; "A Cinderella Story," with Hilary Duff giving a contemporary spin to the fairy-tale romance; and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," featuring Will Ferrell as a '70s newsman facing off against a feminist colleague (Christina Applegate).
Still, summer is not all action and laughs.
A few classy films will be mixed in among the popcorn flicks.
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg reunite for "The Terminal," the story of an Eastern European visitor who becomes a man without a country, stuck in the arrivals area at Kennedy airport after a coup in his home land leaves him without a valid passport. Catherine Zeta-Jones co-stars.
Robert Redford plays a kidnapped tycoon engaged in a socio-economic debate with his abductor (Willem Dafoe) in "The Clearing," which co-stars Helen Mirren.
Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd star in "De-Lovely," an elegant portrait of Cole Porter's hedonistic life. The film features a superstar musical lineup, with cameos by Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Diana Krall and Natalie Cole singing Porter tunes.
"De-Lovely" opens on Porter as a dying old man suddenly transported to a theater where long-gone loved ones are the cast in a stage musical of his life. The action then flits from more conventional film biography to fanciful musical sequences, including one in which Kline's Porter and legendary studio boss Louis B. Mayer break out in song on the MGM lot.
"It's sort of like that split second before you die," Kline said. "Only Cole Porter would have his life flash before him as a musical. The sheer theatricality of that. How better for his life story to play out?"
Highlights of Hollywood's film lineup for summer
LOS ANGELES -- Highlights of Hollywood's summer film slate. Release dates are tentative, and some films play in limited release.
BOBBY JONES: STROKE OF GENIUS: Jim Caviezel follows up "The Passion of the Christ" with a film biography of golf legend Bobby Jones.
ENVY: Buddies (Ben Stiller and Jack Black) wind up at odds after one strikes it rich on a crackpot invention. Barry Levinson directs.
GODSEND: A couple (Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) clone their dead son, with harrowing results. Co-starring Robert De Niro.
LAWS OF ATTRACTION: Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan are rival divorce attorneys who fall for each other.
MEAN GIRLS: A teen (Lindsay Lohan) raised in Africa copes with high school culture clash when her family moves stateside.
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD: A Depression-era beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) stages an absurdist contest to find the world's saddest tunes.
BAADASSSSS!: Mario Van Peebles stars as his dad, Melvin, in the story behind the black-power classic "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song."
BREAKIN' ALL THE RULES: Dumped by his girlfriend, a man (Jamie Foxx) becomes a best-selling author on the art of breaking up.
COFFEE AND CIGARETTES: Jim Jarmusch spins a strange series of encounters over caffeine and nicotine. With Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW: Global warming turns Earth's climate haywire. Directed by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") and starring Dennis Quaid.
A DAY WITHOUT A MEXICAN: California's economy crumbles after the state's Latino population - a huge portion of the work force - mysteriously vanishes.
LOVE ME IF YOU DARE: A whimsical French romance traces a lifelong game of wicked tease between best pals who can't quite acknowledge their love.
THE MOTHER: A widowed London grandma falls for a man half her age. With Anne Reid and Daniel Craig.
NEW YORK MINUTE: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen play bickering sisters who must unite to survive a chaotic day trip to New York City.
RAISING HELEN: A fashion hotshot (Kate Hudson) finds her fast-lane life derailed when she's named caretaker to her sister's three children. Garry Marshall directs.
SAVED!: A good girl (Jena Malone) at a Christian high school falls out of favor when she becomes pregnant. With Mandy Moore.
SHREK 2: The ogre's in-laws aren't in happy-ever-after mode about their daughter's new hubby. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy reprise their voice roles.
A SLIPPING-DOWN LIFE: Lili Taylor and Guy Pearce in a romance about a shy woman obsessed with a musician. Based on Anne Tyler's novel.
SOUL PLANE: A black man wins a cash settlement from an airline and launches his own funky air service.
SUPER SIZE ME: Director Morgan Spurlock chows down on a McDonald's-only diet for a month in an examination of American obesity.
TROY: Legendary warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt) champions the Greeks in their siege of Troy. Wolfgang Petersen directs.
VAN HELSING: Bram Stoker's vampire hunter takes on Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man. With Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale, directed by Stephen Sommers ("The Mummy").
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS: Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan reinvent Jules Verne's globe-trotting adventure. With a cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI: The legend of the blind Japanese swordsman comes to the big screen.
THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK: Vin Diesel revives his "Pitch Black" role in a sci-fi battle against an interstellar tyrant.
DEAR FRANKIE: A mother concocts exotic fantasies to explain to her deaf son about his father's absence. With Emily Mortimer.
DE-LOVELY: Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd in a Cole Porter film biography packed with performances by Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette.
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY: Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn square off in a grudge match of dodgeball.
THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR: Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger are a couple racked by tragedy. Based on John Irving's "A Widow for One Year."
GARFIELD: The comic-strip fat cat sounds suspiciously like Bill Murray in this live-action and computer-animation combo.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN: The teen wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals face an inmate escaped from a sorcerer's prison.
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE: Geeks rule in a Sundance festival favorite about teenage outsiders who find their place in the world.
THE NOTEBOOK: A tale of fiery romance stretching from World War II to the present. With James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
SEDUCING DOCTOR LEWIS: A remote French-Canadian village connives to lure a big-city doctor so a company will open a factory there.
SPIDER-MAN 2: The web-slinging hero (Tobey Maguire) returns to battle villainous Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). Sam Raimi again directs.
THE STEPFORD WIVES: Nicole Kidman's a suspicious newbie in a town of bizarrely ideal wives in this update of the '70s flick. With Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler.
THE TERMINAL: Steven Spielberg directs Tom Hanks as an Eastern European in limbo at Kennedy Airport after a coup back home invalidates his passport. Catherine Zeta-Jones co-stars.
TWO BROTHERS: A family adventure about tiger cubs separated in youth and reunited as opponents as adults. With Guy Pearce.
WHITE CHICKS: FBI agents (Shawn and Marlon Wayans) go undercover as society gals in a kidnapping investigation. Keenen Ivory Wayans directs.
AMERICA'S HEART AND SOUL: Documentary filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg travels the land to find the pulse of ordinary Americans.
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY: Will Ferrell's a hot-dog '70s news anchor challenged by a feminist colleague (Christina Applegate).
BEFORE SUNSET: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater team for a follow-up to 1995's "Before Sunrise."
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY: Matt Damon returns as Robert Ludlum's amnesiac agent in a follow-up to "The Bourne Identity."
CATWOMAN: A wallflower artist alle Berry) gains feline powers in this spinoff of DC Comics' "Batman."
A CINDERELLA STORY: Hilary Duff's a put-upon stepdaughter whose prince charming tries to track her down with a cell phone she leaves behind.
THE CLEARING: Robert Redford plays a kidnapped rich guy tussling with his abductor (Willem Dafoe). With Helen Mirren.
DANNY DECKCHAIR: Rhys Ifans and Miranda Otto star in a fanciful romance about a man who takes a voyage in a chair flown by helium balloons.
GARDEN STATE: Zach Braff writes, directs and stars in a romance about a depressive man who finds love on a trip home for his mom's funeral. With Natalie Portman.
HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE: A quest for hamburgers turns into a consciousness-expanding road trip for two stoned buddies.
A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD: Colin Farrell, Robin Wright-Penn and Sissy Spacek star in a drama based on the book by Michael Cunningham ("The Hours").
I, ROBOT: Will Smith's a future detective investigating a crime that may have been committed by a robot. Based on Isaac Asimov's story collection.
KING ARTHUR: Clive Owen's the legendary English leader in his battle to unite the land. With Keira Knightley as Guinevere.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber update the 1960s assassination thriller. Jonathan Demme directs.
MARIA FULL OF GRACE: A young Colombian woman (Catalina Sandino Moreno) finds danger when she signs on to carry drugs to New York.
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER: The heavy-metal band opens its heart - and its group-therapy sessions - in this behind-the-scenes documentary.
RIDING GIANTS: A rousing documentary examining the development of American surfing as sport and culture.
SHE HATE ME: Spike Lee's latest centers on a fired biotech exec (Anthony Mackie) with a new career: Impregnating lesbians who want babies.
SLEEPOVER: Alexa Vega ("Spy Kids") leads a pack of pals on an all-night scavenger hunt during a slumber party.
THUNDERBIRDS: Bill Paxton leads a fleet of sleek aircraft against bad guy Ben Kingsley in a live-action version of the cult TV puppet series.
TOUCH OF PINK: An Asian-Canadian man (Jimi Mistry) thinks he's living with the spirit of Cary Grant (Kyle McLachlan).
THE VILLAGE: A town lives amid evil in a surrounding forest. With Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody and William Hurt. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense").
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: In this corner, a scary beast. In that corner, another scary beast. The sci-fi monsters duke it out in Antarctica.
ANACONDAS: THE HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID: Adventurers face a giant predator in this follow-up to the 1997 action flick.
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS: Actor Stephen Fry directs a story of the last gasp of British hedonism before World War II. With Emily Mortimer, Dan Aykroyd and Peter O'Toole.
CELLULAR: A wrong number on his cell phone is a man's only clue to saving a kidnapped stranger (Kim Basinger).
CODE 46: Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton find forbidden romance in a future world where travel is severely restricted. Michael Winterbottom directs.
COLLATERAL: Tom Cruise stars in a thriller about a hit man who hijacks a taxi for a one-night round of killings. Michael Mann directs.
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING: Stellan Skarsgard stars as "The Exorcist" priest in his first satanic encounter in Africa.
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS: Charlize Theron follows up her best-actress Academy Award win as a French socialite living it up on the eve of World War II.
HERO: Jet Li stars in an epic set in ancient China, where a lone warrior stands in the way of assassins out to kill the future emperor.
I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD: "Croupier" star Clive Owen and director Mike Hodges reunite for the tale of a former London hoodlum drawn back to gangster life.
OPEN WATER: A scuba-diving outing turns terrifying for a couple mistakenly left behind in shark-infested waters. Based on a true story.
PRINCESS DIARIES 2: ROYAL ENGAGEMENT: The princess-in-waiting (Anne Hathaway) must find a hubby in a month or forfeit the throne. Julie Andrews again co-stars.
SHALL WE DANCE?: Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon star in a remake of the Japanese hit about a businessman entranced by formal dancing.
SWIMMING UPSTREAM: An Australian rises above his harsh upbringing to become a champion swimmer. With Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis.
TWIN SISTERS: Nominated for the foreign-language Academy Award, the Dutch film follows orphaned siblings raised in wildly different upbringings.
WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE: Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause team for a drama of infidelity among two couples.
WITHOUT A PADDLE: Three pals take a misguided canoe trip in search of treasure. With Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Burt Reynolds.
YU-GI-OH!: The TV cartoon comes to the big screen as heroic Yugi takes on the Egyptian god Anubis.
ZELARY: An Academy Award nominee for foreign-language film, the Czech tale centers on a nurse caught up in the resistance during World War II.