Guide to summer movies 2011

Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life," directed by Terrence Malick.
Fox Searchlight

The biggest movie of the summer of 2010 was "Toy Story 3." So what does the summer of 2011 hold for moviegoers? Bill Whitaker offers this sneak preview:

Yes, it's that time of year: The summer movie season.

There are comics ("Mr. Popper's Penguins"), and comics ("Green Lantern"). Sequels ("The Hangover 2") and more sequels ("Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides").

"Hollywood always feels comfortable when they're bringing out films that in the past audiences have liked," said Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times - and our guide for what the studios hope is a big summer at the box office.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a year where people in Hollywood would say, 'You know, we're looking at a terrible summer. They're the last optimists in America," Turan said.

Photos: Summer movies 2011

One reason for optimism: The Pirates of the Caribbean are back, in "On Stranger Tides." The first three films took in more than $2.5 billion worldwide.

"They hit gold, you know? Appropriate for a pirate movie!" Turan said. "You know, having Johnny Depp in this role - anything that Johnny Depp is in, everyone wants to kind of connect to."

Photos: "Pirates" lands at Cannes

Another sequel: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," the third film based on the children's toys.

And those party animals from "The Hangover" are back, too - in "The Hangover 2." The first film was the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever.

Aliens make their presence felt in a new blend of genres - the science fiction-western, "Cowboys and Aliens."

Blend movie-making kids, a train wreck and an alien presence, and you get "Super 8," from director J.J. Abrams.

"J.J. Abrams is a director who's got a real gift for pop theater entertainment," Turan said. "I think this looks to be one of the big hits of the summer."

You may marvel at the number of comic book characters making it to the big screen this summer.

"There's "X-Men: First Class" ... "Captain America: The First Avenger" ... "Thor" ... and "Green Lantern." That film reportedly cost more than $200 million.

"Comic book movies have been very successful because there's a core audience of kids who love these comic books and will go out to the movies," said Turan. "But I think even that audience might be getting a little tired of it."

"Thor" clobbers competition to win box office
Photos: Kenneth Branagh: From Bard to Thor

And speaking of tires ... there's "Cars 2" from the folks at Pixar.

And from Dreamworks, "Kung Fu Panda 2."

There'll be penguins this summer when Jim Carrey inherits six of them in "Mr. Popper's Penguins."

And apes: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" takes us back to the beginning ... more than 40 years after the franchise began.

It won't be all kids' stuff and cartoons and comic book characters at the movies this summer; there are more than a few offerings for grown-up audiences. too.

Turan is most looking forward to "The Tree of Life." Premiering at this month's Cannes Film Festival, it stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It's from director Terrence Malick ("Badland," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line").

"He is a cinematic artist," Truan said. "And I don't always like the films, but win, lose or draw, he is really trying to push the boundaries of the medium."

Opening the Cannes festival was "Midnight in Paris," with Owen Wilson ... the latest film from Woody Allen.

Photos: "Midnight in Paris" premiere

If you're looking for stars, "Larry Crowne" tops the list, with Oscar-winners Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as student and teacher.

From the bookshelf, there's "The Help," based on the Kathryn Stockett bestseller about African-American maids in the 1960s South.

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," from the Lisa See novel of female friendship ... past and present.

And "Submarine," the story of a 15-year-old boy trying to keep his parents together and launch his own love life.

"It's just got a style and a way of making film that is just unique, and it really feels like fun," said Turan.

"The First Grader" is based on the true story of a Kenyan man in his 80s who fights for the right to learn to read.

"Project Nim" tells of a chimpanzee reared in a human family - it really happened, in the 1970s.

Another documentary, "Buck," is the story of Buck Brennerman, the real-life horse whisperer.

"It's really hard to stop watching this film," Turan said. "To see him work with horses and to hear his philosophy, to understand how he operates, it's just a marvelous thing."

And, finally ... the finale of the most successful franchise in movie history: Warner Brothers' "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" is the last of eight films in the series that has already taken in more than $6 billion.

"They've really put a lot of money into these films, and they've made sure to really treat the books with kid gloves, not to mess with them, just to give the fans what the fans want to see," said Turan.

Perhaps there's something you want to see. The summer movie season is upon us. Take the plunge.