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Stomping to the Summer Box Office

Have movie stars become too expensive for Hollywood to handle?

Evidence is mounting. High-salaried superstars like Kevin Costner and John Travolta failed to save high-profile flops like "The Postman" and "Mad City" last year - while pictures lacking megastars, from "Titanic" to "Bean," cleaned up nicely at the box office.

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What's behind the trend? One factor is the waywardness of youthful audiences, who prefer fresh young faces to the tried-and-true talents applauded by their parents, writes Peter Bart, editor of Variety, an entertainment trade paper.

Other factors are the growing importance of high-tech effects and what Bart calls "simple emotion," as in "Good Will Hunting," which is still pulling in healthy profits even though Robin Williams is its only bona fide star.

Whatever the root causes of the change, Hollywood is paying attention, and studios may already be less willing to spend large fractions of their budgets on stars demanding superhigh fees. This summer's box-office figures could accelerate the shift if computer-designed extravaganzas and lavishly drawn animations outshine entertainments banking on sheer star power.

All of which means box-office races could be as suspenseful as on-screen action when the warm-weather season leaps into high gear.

Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno will clearly play second fiddle to a high-tech monster in Godzilla, for instance, based on the 1956 Japanese classic. Directed by Roland Emmerich, the remake promises vast amounts of mayhem and mystery. If the monster delivers as much excitement as ticket-buyers expect, the tide against flesh-and-blood stars could swell even faster than predicted.

Bruce Willis is a genuine superstar, but again, what moviegoers are looking forward to in Armageddon is less the sight of his handsome face than the spectacle of a Texas-size asteroid heading toward Earth at the impressive speed of 22,000 miles per hour. Can our hero rocket to its surface, set off a nuclear explosion, and save us all?

Another way of dodging superstar salaries is to draw a movie instead of photographing it. The animators at Walt Disney Pictures have been doing this for decades, and for their 36th feature they've cooked up Mulan, the tale of a Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man and fights off invaders with help from her "guardian dragon." Eddie Murphy heads the voices-only cast.

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Rivals occasionally challenge Disney's dominance of movie cartooning, and after earning a fortune with the partly animated "Space Jam," the Warner Bros. studio is now using total animation in Quest for Camelot, about a feisty girl and a blind man seeking to save King Arthur's legendary sword from a nasty villain. Voices are provided by Pierce Brosnan and Jane Seymour, among others.

TV knockoffs

Television producers often rely on clever concepts to attract viewers, and once a formula has proven itself on the tube, theatrical filmmakers may gleefully appropriate it. The summer's most eagerly awaited adaptation is The X-Files, with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in their TV roles as FBI agents unraveling a tangled web of paranormal facts, theories, and hunches.

Will its conspiracies grow even more complicated on multiplex screens than they already are in living rooms? Stay tuned. Or wait another week for The Avengers, aimed at TV viewers of an earlier generation. Ralph Fiennes plays John Steed, and Uma Thurman is Mrs. Peel, his hip and lethal sidekick. This show's cult status has never quite subsided, but it remains to be seen whether the producers win their gamble of updating it from the swinging '60s to the not-so-swinging '90s.

Despite the gimmicks derived from computer effects, animation, and nostalgic TV shows, movie stars will make a case for their ongoing importance in vehicles designed to spotlight their talents. One is Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, about a squad of World War II soldiers wondering why they've been ordered to risk their lives on behalf of an obscure paratrooper. Matt Damon, fresh from "Good Will Hunting," plays the missing private. Steven Spielberg directed the picture for his new DreamWorks studio, which is not succeeding as robustly as hoped. Hollywood observers will be watching this one closely.

Also strutting his stuff will be Warren Beatty, who has more than a dozen Oscar nominations under his belt. He's also a political buff whose credits include "Reds," one of Hollywood's most ambitious social-issue movies.

Bulworth showcases Beatty as a nerve-jangled senator whose acquaintance with an African-American woman (Halle Berry) sparks unplanned alterations in his public pronouncements about race and class. Industry analysts are eager to see whether this comedy will take off more resoundingly than "Primary Colors," or if politics is this year's box-office poison. A lot depends on the answer, including Beatty's future prospects as a director, producer, screenwriter, and yes, high-priced star.

Due the same day is Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, about the aftermath of a 14-year-old girl's riding accident. Kristin Scott Thomas and Sam Neill head the supporting cast, with newcomer Scarlett Johansson as the troubled heroine.

Family flicks

Summertime is family time, so many of the season's offerings will target spectators of all ages. The Parent Trap remakes a likable 1961 comedy about twin sisters who scheme to bring their straying parents back together. Ever After: A Cinderella Story stars Drew Barrymore as the fairy-tale heroine and Anjelica Huston as her social-climbing stepmother. If you didn't get enough of Eddie Murphy in "Mulan," he's due in Doctor Dolittle as a veterinarian who can talk to his patients.

Finally, what about moviegoers who want it all -action, spectacle, romance, nostalgia, and some of the greatest movie stars who ever lived? They can't do better than Gone With the Wind, the ever-popular 1939 drama with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh topping a truly legendary cast. It's been reissued many times, but this summer's presentation restores its original shape (more square than rectangular) and enhances its Technicolor hues.

All this and the Civil War too! The coming parade of monsters, asteroids, and cartoon characters have hefty competition in store.

* Expected release dates: 'Bulworth' and 'The Horse Whisperer,' May 15; 'Godzilla,' May 20; 'Quest for Camelot,' May 22; 'The X-Files' and 'Mulan,' June 19; 'The Avengers,' 'Doctor Dolittle,' and 'Gone With the Wind,' June 26; 'Armageddon,' July 1; 'Saving Private Ryan,' July 24; 'The Parent Trap' and 'Ever After: A Cinderella Story,' July 29.

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