LOS ANGELES – All films not named Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, please raise your hands so audiences will know you'll be in theaters this holiday season.
Not since Star Wars returned with The Phantom Menace have moviegoers been so eager for a single movie.
And for a world abruptly cast into a war on terrorism, Harry Potter may be the ideal cinematic salve, a journey into a parallel world where magic rules and goodness triumphs.
"I've rarely read anything this imaginative and unique and also funny," Harry Potter director Chris Columbus said of J.K. Rowling's fiction phenomenon about a boy wizard fighting evil at a school of witchcraft. "It's the ultimate fantasy that gives kids hope there's somewhere else they can go in their lives, and for adults, gives them the feeling of being 11 years old again."
Harry Potter has good company in the much-needed escapism department this fall. Monsters, Inc. got a head-start on the holidays with a record box-office debut for an animated film, while the first installment of Lord of the Rings hits in December.
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, about a kid tussling with aliens, could prove an animated sleeper. Martin Lawrence takes his comic attitude to the 16th century with Black Knight, a tale of a modern man hurled back to merry old England. George Clooney, Brad Pitt and friends plan the perfect casino heist in Ocean's Eleven, from director Steven Soderbergh, who's practicing his own escapism from weightier films like Traffic and Erin Brockovich.
War-film fans can take a break from the real headlines with Behind Enemy Lines, starring Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson as soldiers in a fictional, near-future combat setting. Robert Redford and Brad Pitt provide espionage adventure with the cat-and-mouse thriller Spy Game.
Filmgoers can even escape back into the fairy-tale world of Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast, which comes to huge-screen Imax theaters beginning New Year's Day.
"Pure escapism is very useful, maybe more so since the changed-world moment," said director Baz Luhrmann, whose high-spirited, tragicomic musical Moulin Rouge is returning to theaters for a limited run.
"Escaping into a world that can remind us of the good things in life. I've traveled the world (with Moulin Rouge), and people come up and thank me that they could get out of their head space for a couple of hours."
As with the glitzy but lived-in look of Moulin Rouge, the makers of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring try to make the fantastical Middle-earth world of J.R.R. Tolkien feel like a real place, "not some incredibly gorgeous and ideal land audiences can't relate to," said Elijah Wood, who stars as the hobbit Frodo Baggins.
"It's almost like what Star Wars did for the sci-fi genre, making it gritty and dirty and used and believable," Wood said. "The thing about Tolkien is it reads like a history you can relate to and feel as if it actually existed. With this film, you get a sense visually that there's an age to the place. Nothing is perfect or pristine."
Tim Allen provides escapism with one of the season's few comedies, Joe Somebody, about an Everyman who's awakened from a humdrum life after the office bully beats him up in front of his daughter.
"There's no explosions, and you can leave that theater smiling about humanity and enjoying what I do best, which is comedy," said Allen, whose other fall comedy, Big Trouble, was postponed indefinitely after the terrorist attacks because it had a scene about a nuclear device aboard a plane.
"What I want from movies right now is not to see how we think we're going to deal with terrorists," Allen said. "I want to laugh or go into outer space or under the sea or watch Indiana Jones stuff."
Then, of course, the holidays hold promise of escape into quality as studios roll out their serious Oscar contenders.
Films jockeying for awards consideration include: Ali, from director Michael Mann (The Insider), with Will Smith taking his dramatic title shot as the boxing legend; The Shipping News, starring Kevin Spacey in the best-seller adaptation about a newspapermen re-examining his family history; I Am Sam, starring Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer in the tale of a retarded man fighting for custody of his daughter; Gosford Park, Robert Altman's satiric murder mystery and class-war satire on an English estate; Monster's Ball, a death-row drama featuring Billy Bob Thornton as an executioner; Charlotte Gray, with Cate Blanchett as a British spy in France during World War II.
Also: The Majestic, Jim Carrey's latest hope to avoid another Oscar snub in the story of a blacklisted, amnesiac screenwriter in the 1950s; Vanilla Sky, a fractured tale of manhood from the Jerry Maguire team of Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe; The Royal Tenenbaums, featuring Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller as a family of brilliant failures; Iris, with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet portraying writer Iris Murdoch at different times in her life; and A Beautiful Mind, the story of Nobel Prize-winning economist John Forbes Nash Jr. and his battle with schizophrenia, starring last year's best-actor winner, Russell Crowe.
With A Beautiful Mind, director Ron Howard notes he's turned "just about 180 degrees" from his film last fall, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
"But there is an odd parallel between the two. Grinch was driven by an extraordinary central character played by an unusually gifted powerhouse talent, Jim Carrey," Howard said. "There's similarities on the other end of the spectrum for Russell Crowe, who captures this deeply complex, often troubled, always challenged character who's a genius.
"With Nash, personality, madness, ambition, all sort of colluded to create kind of an isolated individual. Like the Grinch. There's another parallel I had never thought of."
Ali focuses heavily on the boxer's personal and political struggles from 1964 to '74. But Smith promises some mind-blowing action in the ring.
"The boxing footage in this film will never be matched. You'll never get a group of guys together willing to punch each the way we did for a year and a half," Smith said. "It's not even something I'm saying arrogantly. I just feel Michael Mann has created his all-time work of art."
Compared to the big productions of A Beautiful Mind, Vanilla Sky, Ali and The Shipping News, I Am Sam is a small tearjerker whose makers hope awards attention will help lure audiences. Penn's powerhouse blend of comedy and drama should put him squarely in the best-actor race.
"Potentially, this movie can be big in the way Rain Man was big," said Pfeiffer, playing a self-absorbed attorney who gets lessons in life and parenting when she takes on the custody case of Penn's character. "Films can get lost in the shuffle, but I think people will find this movie, ultimately."
Practically any movie could get lost in the shuffle somewhat in a season that boasts Harry Potter, especially if moviegoers love it so much they pull a Titanic and go back to see it again and again.
To satisfy the meticulous Harry Potter legions, director Columbus wisely pushed the movie to 2 hours, unusually long for a family film. That way, Columbus notes, he could preserve as much of the novel on screen as possible.
"Fans, myself being one, are so obsessive about every page of the book. If I had my way, I would have shot a 6-hour film," Columbus said. "Unfortunately, in reality, we did need to condense certain things and drop certain things. But most of the major scenes remain intact."