Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe Johnston, 124 mins (12A)
Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 94 mins (U)
Horrid Henry: The Movie, Nick Moore, 90 mins, (U)

The fantastic world of comic books comes to life in a square-jawed action movie in which goodies and baddies reassuringly know their place

When I tell you that Captain America: The First Avenger is a superhero film, you won't be shocked to read that it's the story of a weakling who acquires special powers, dons a gaudy costume, and has a climactic punch-up with a fancy-dressed megalomaniac who just happens to have popped up at the same time.

But as formulaic as it is, it's one of the more joyful examples of the genre, largely because it's a period piece. Just as another of this summer's superhero movies, X-Men: First Class, established its own identity by sporting 1960s fashions, Captain America: The First Avenger (it's firsty work, coming up with superhero subtitles) is set during the Second World War, and it's true to the two-fisted, square-jawed spirit of a 1940s Saturday matinee serial.

Chris Evans has the title role – not the DJ, but the beefcake who played the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four, which suggests that the casting agents at Marvel Entertainment need to invest in a bigger Rolodex. For the film's opening act, some seamless post-Benjamin Button effects attach Evans's head on to another actor's scrawny body, and we learn that he's a brave young patriot who's deemed too feeble to go to war.

But then he's injected with a super serum by Stanley Tucci's scientist. With the encouragement of Tommy Lee Jones's wry colonel and Hayley Atwell's curvaceous British agent, he marches off to battle the Boche, specifically Hugo Weaving, one of those villains who keeps shooting his own men, and Toby Jones, his boffin sidekick. The baddies, as ever, steal the show. Effectively remaking his earlier 1940s-set romp The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston directs Captain America not as a brooding exploration of human frailty, as today's superhero movies tend to be, but as a ripping yarn, one which has its share of funny lines, but without any irony to undermine the Boy's Own heroics. Alan Silvestri's score is buoyed up with rousing martial fanfares, and Rick Heinrich's production design doesn't stint on classic cars or laboratories that are wall-to-wall dials and levers.

Even when you're watching a superhero movie, though, you've got to believe at some point that the man in tights might be in danger, and Captain America lacks that essential frisson. The peppy, nostalgic fun is appropriate as long as Evans is making the transition from man to superman, but once he's on the battlefield, you'd think the film might get a tad more nerve-racking. It doesn't. Captain A's Nazi-socking exploits are dispensed with in brief, breezy montages, and the fisticuffs are varnished with so much CGI that we never feel as if we're seeing real stunts performed by real people, let alone real fights between real superhumans. Halfway through, the Captain is paraded around the country by the US government to boost national morale, and his adventures are staged in a studio for the newsreel cameras. But later on, when he does get into action, it all seems just as fake.

There are two films out this week that are based on British children's stories. If you're a parent who has to take your offspring to one of them, and you value your sanity, you'll insist on Arrietty, a Studio Ghibli adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers. Co-written by Hayao Miyazaki, it's the magical tale of a family of tiny people who live under the floorboards of a house. It might be a bit slow and delicate for a generation raised on Pixar-style information overload, but there's always something to catch the eye in the gorgeous painted backgrounds, and the games it plays with scale are a particular delight. The animators paid close attention to the surface tension of liquids, it seems, so when the Borrowers pour their tea, a cupful plops out of the pot in one globular drop.

By the way, Arrietty is being shown in a subtitled version and a dubbed one. Take your pick, but Saiorse Ronan, Mark Strong and others are ideally cast in the English-language edition.

Parents who draw the short straw might be stuck with Horrid Henry: The Movie, a live-action travesty of Francesca Simon and Tony Ross's mega-selling storybooks. Like the recent St Trinian's films, it has the peculiarly British, sub-panto amateurishness of a project that's hoping to get away with its nonsensical script, shoddy effects and clunky acting, purely because it's loud and zany and it's got a cameo from a member of Girls Aloud.

It seems to be set in a frenzied parallel universe of sweet-shop colours and Fifties styling, all of which is heightened by the cheap 3D, but it forgets little things like giving its many characters anything to do. Jo Brand is on the poster, for instance, even though she's on screen for half a minute and her dialogue consists solely of the word "stew".

But the fundamental problem is Horrid Henry (Theo Stevenson) himself. I suppose this bogey-flicking brat is following in the rule-breaking tradition of Just William, but what's really obnoxious is that he defends his antisocial behaviour by announcing ad nauseam that he's going to be a rock star. Dennis the Menace may have been a slacker, but he didn't expect to make a career out of it.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber hopes to see a more edifying vision of childhood in J J Abrams's Super 8

Film Choice

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Also Showing: 31/07/2011

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A Mexican labourer hopes to stop his teenage son from being recruited by a gang in Los Angeles. Chris Weitz's heartfelt drama aims for the poignancy of The Bicycle Thieves, but only Demian Bichir's tender performance stops it from feeling like a lecture on immigration issues.

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