LOS ANGELES - Hollywood may find it tough to match 2009's record box-office revenue. Yet studios have a cast of characters this year to make a run for their money.
Among the gang:
Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland." Russell Crowe as the noble thief in "Robin Hood." Jennifer Aniston as a wily bail-jumper pursued by her ex-hubby in "The Bounty Hunter." Steve Carell as a world-class idiot in "Dinner for Schmucks." Angelina Jolie as a CIA operative accused of being a Russian spy in "Salt." Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in blue tights and magic wings in "Tooth Fairy." Julia Roberts as a divorced woman trekking the globe in "Eat Pray Love." Liam Neeson as both the new boss of "The A-Team" and as Greek god Zeus in "Clash of the Titans. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz as a fugitive couple in "Knight and Day."
Of course, these are just some of the newbies. Hollywood's lineup is loaded with returning favorites, including Robert Downey Jr. as the billionaire superhero in "Iron Man 2"; Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner in the vampire-werewolf-human love triangle in "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse"; Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas as mouthpieces for the fairy-tale gang in "Shrek Forever After"; Tom Hanks and Tim Allen reprising their voice roles in "Toy Story 3"; Michael Douglas as greedy guy Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street 2"; Sarah Jessica Parker and her Manhattan gal pals in "Sex and the City 2"; Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro as uneasy in-laws in "Meet the Parents 3"; and Daniel Radcliffe as the teen wizard in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1."
Here's a sampling of a dozen movies competing for your attention in the coming year.
THE BOOK OF ELI (Jan. 15):
Denzel Washington has a bit of a messiah complex in Hollywood's latest take on the apocalypse and what comes after.
The film from sibling directors Albert and Allen Hughes casts Washington as a prophet on a mission from God to protect a priceless text that may hold the key to humanity's future. As he travels across the wasteland of America, Washington's Eli encounters a corrupt gang leader (Gary Oldman) desperate to obtain the book and a traveling companion (Mila Kunis) who becomes an unexpected protege.
And he mixes it up with some nimble fight sequences as Eli takes on ruffians along the road. Washington spent about six months training for the movie's martial-arts battles, including one where he's outnumbered 16-to-1.
"I've been boxing for 15 years, so I felt comfortable with fighting, but this was a whole different style of movement, almost a dance," Washington said.
Just what's driving Eli?
"He's definitely hearing something," Washington said. "There's some Joan of Arc working there."
PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF (Feb. 12):
After directing the first two "Harry Potter" flicks, Chris Columbus was not sure he wanted to take on another visual-effects extravaganza.
His daughter was a fan of this new kid, Percy Jackson, hero of Rick Riordan's fantasy books about the modern-day machinations of the Greek gods. Columbus also became a fan and was doubly inspired that Percy and his daughter both had to cope with dyslexia.
A teen demigod who is the son of sea god Poseidon, Percy is falsely suspected of stealing uncle Zeus' lighting bolt, sending him on a quest to find the true culprit.
Columbus said he hopes the movie's contemporary trappings — messenger Hermes' winged flying shoes are a pair of Converse All-Stars — will stoke young readers' interest in classical mythology.
"Because we're in this sort of golden era of fantasy where you can create these creatures seamlessly in terms of their involvement with the live action on screen, you can bring them to life in a way that kids have never seen before," Columbus said.
THE WOLFMAN (Feb. 12):
What would Valentine's Day weekend be without a werewolf dispensing hickeys?
Benicio Del Toro is the hairy beast in this update of the horror classic, playing a black sheep son who returns to his ancestral home in England after his brother is killed and mutilated by a mysterious beast. Bitten himself, Del Toro joins up with his brother's fiance (Emily Blunt), who helps him try to lift the curse of the werewolf.
The werewolf effects are done old-school, Del Toro inside a heavy, hairy suit rather than being transformed through computer animation, Blunt said.
Del Toro is a freak for the character and his big-screen legacy, owning actual wolf man memorabilia, Blunt said. Not so Blunt herself.
"I'm not really a huge fan of horror films," Blunt said. "I'm the worst person to try and scare. I scare so easily. I have no tolerance for fright. I used to get scared when my sister would chase me up the stairs."
THE LAST SONG (April 2):
Contrary to the title, Miley Cyrus does not sing in her latest movie. It's all part of growing up and easing herself and fans beyond her perky Hannah Montana persona.
"I like all different kinds of movies, but mostly I like darker things," Cyrus said. "I've done a lot and feel like people don't take me seriously because they haven't seen the serious side of me."
"The Last Song" casts Cyrus as a sullen teen who turns down a scholarship to The Juilliard School and wants nothing to do with music, a reaction against her estranged father (Greg Kinnear), a pianist. Forced to spend a summer with him, her character ends up reconnecting with dad through music, after all. Cyrus learned to play classical piano for the movie.
Though it deals with dark themes, the movie still carries a family friendly PG rating.
"I think it's good, because I don't want to go away from my fans too quickly," Cyrus said. "But then again, I still want to be edgy, and I definitely want to keep the older fans I've got."
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (April 23):
Is greed still good for Gordon Gekko?
After creating an archetype of the modern robber baron with 1987's "Wall Street," director Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas resurrect Gekko in our own messy economic times.
Douglas, who won the best-actor Oscar as Gekko, laid out the man's last couple of decades: A prison term for insider trading, barred from the stock market, writing a book about his experiences as the world heads toward financial meltdown in 2006 and 2007. Gekko's daughter (Carey Mulligan) happens to be engaged to a young Wall Street guy (Shia LaBeouf), though Douglas would not reveal if that gives Gekko a foothold back into the markets himself.
With his "greed works" philosophy, Gekko perversely was a hero for real Wall Streeters, Douglas said. Young men meet him on the street and hug him and hug him, saying that Douglas is the reason they're in the business. But Douglas said, "I go, 'Hey, I was the villain.' But I think they were seduced by the color of the feathers."
IRON MAN 2 (May 7):
At the end of his first blockbuster about the guy in the gadget-laden metal suit, Robert Downey Jr.'s billionaire genius Tony Stark proclaims to the world, "I am Iron Man."
So much for secret identities.
In the sequel, "we see what the ramifications of that announcement from the first film were," said Jon Favreau, director of the "Iron Man" films. "He already had his hands full just being Tony Stark, but now he's Iron Man, as well. What are the effects of that level of fame and expectation?"
This time, Tony faces bad guy Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has his own arsenal of high-tech weapons.
Favreau likes having a hero and villain played by actors who have bounced back from tough personal times, Downey with substance abuse, Rourke with self-destructive anger issues.
"What attracted me to both of them must have had something, on some level, to do with how difficult their journeys had been," Favreau said. "It somehow shines through the performances that they give. It's hard to find somebody young that carries that experience in their face and their eyes."
SHREK FOREVER AFTER (May 21):
Mike Myers' Shrek meets James Stewart's George Bailey in what's billed as the final big-screen movie about the lovable cartoon ogre.
Like George, Shrek sees what the world would be like without him, as sneaky wheeler-dealer Rumpelstiltskin cons the ogre into signing away his existence. Suddenly, Shrek is in an alternate reality where he never met true love Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) or sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).
It's a twisted place where ogres are hunted, Rumpelstiltskin reigns and Shrek's sweet little pal the Gingerbread Man fights Animal Crackers in gladiatorial death matches.
"Shrek's problem is he's not the same ogre he was in the first film," said Mike Mitchell, director of the franchise's fourth installment. "People don't fear him, they adore him. When he gives his trademark roar, instead of villagers running away, they run to him and ask him to sign their pitchforks. He just wishes he could get back that feeling of being a big scary ogre that no one messed with."
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME (May 28):
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer turned a Disney theme-park ride into a billion-dollar movie franchise with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" flicks.
He aims for the same with this video-game adaptation, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in his first fantasy action spectacle.
The sword-and-sorcery saga casts Gyllenhaal as a street urchin adopted into a royal family who discovers a magic dagger of immense power, the weapon coming in handy after he's falsely accused of wrongdoing and goes on the run.
Such fantasy adventures are more valuable than ever in this era of hard times, Gyllenhaal said.
"All of my favorite movies have always taken me to another world, taken me to a place that is dreamlike or somewhere I can imagine or daydream," Gyllenhaal said. "Given the state of the world and where we're at, I think people should laugh and have fun."
TOY STORY 3 (June 18):
Toys may not grow up, but the kids who play with them do.
Tom Hanks' Woody the cowboy, Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear and their plaything partners face abandonment issues in the latest chapter of the franchise that launched the computer-animation age for feature films.
The gang's owner, Andy, is heading off to college, leaving the toys in limbo, uncertain what future they have without a child to amuse.
"Toy Story 2" foreshadowed that notion as Woody struggled with the realization that kids eventually would outgrow their toys.
"Woody decides, 'Yes, Andy's going to grow up someday. I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm going to enjoy the time I have with him while I have it,'" said Lee Unkrich, who directed the new film. "It's one thing to make peace with something coming in the future. It's another thing itself to find yourself actually at that day."
THE LAST AIRBENDER (July 2):
M. Night Shyamalan gathered with his family one day to watch a cartoon show his daughter loved. And his adaptation of the TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" was off and running.
Featuring "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel, the film is set in a world where four nations once lived in harmony, each possessing powers to manipulate one of the elements — air, water, earth and fire — balance maintained by an "avatar" who can control all elements.
After the avatar vanishes, the world plunges into chaos and warfare. But when a boy (Noah Ringer) emerges unaware that he's the avatar, he must learn to master the elements to restore order.
"When we sat down to watch the show, it just immediately hooked me in terms of everything that interests me," Shyamalan said. "Martial arts, the Shakespearean quality of the story, the special effects, the fact that it's oriented toward internal and spiritual things, much as the Force is in 'Star Wars.'"
INCEPTION (July 16):
Same bat weekend, different action story for "The Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan.
His science-fiction thriller "Inception," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, opens in the same summer slot as his Batman blockbuster did in 2008. DiCaprio plays a new kind of corporate raider — a man who uses technology to steal into people's minds and swipe ideas and information that he can sell.
Unlike Nolan's two Batman adventures, "Inception" is an all-new story, without the benefit of his superhero's comic-book back story.
"It's definitely a challenge to put a movie out there and create anticipation for a movie for which people have no frame of reference," said writer-director Nolan. "The flip side of the challenge is audiences are very hungry for things they haven't seen before. They're very hungry for original material, as well.
"To me, the way to enter into that challenge is to put everything into the movie on as grand a scale as possible."
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 1 (Nov. 19):
The young wizard's next trick: Sawing his final adventure in half and presenting it as a two-parter.
When the filmmakers were preparing to adapt the seventh book in J.K. Rowling's fantasy series, producer David Heyman was set against breaking the finale in two. Then everyone realized what an impossible magic act a single movie would prove.
"It just became increasingly clear there was no way to tell the story in a cohesive, coherent way that would make sense and would resolve and deal with all the story elements that were so integral in one film," Heyman said.
Expected to run about four and a half hours over two films, "Deathly Hallows" sends Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) in search of the mystical Horcruxes — which they must destroy to pull the plug on evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
Fans will not have too long a wait between movies. Part 2 arrives in July 2011.