Voices by Will Smith, Jack Black, Renée Zellweger, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Angelina Jolie
ANIMATED

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Oscar longs to be considered a big fish, one who is rich and famous. "Nobody loves a nobody," our ichthyic hero whines in this family film. So when puny Oscar (Smith) is mistakenly credited with having slain a supposedly fierce shark, he's happy to perpetuate the lie and accept the accolades that come pouring in. The snag is that his admirers expect him to go on dispatching sharks.

While clever, particularly in the way it spoofs the Godfather films, this tale never quite hooks you. Given its watery setting, comparison with Finding Nemo (2003) is inevitable, and that's a contest Shark Tale can't win. The problem is that Oscar is more irritating than lovable. It's as if Donkey, the braying, boastful sidekick in the Shrek movies, were center stage at all times. (Like Shrek, Tale comes from DreamWorks' computer-animation division.) Far more appealing in Tale than Oscar is Lenny (Black), a shark who, to his family's shame, is a vegetarian. Oscar helps the gentle-natured Lenny hide from his Mob-boss dad, Don Lino (De Niro), a great white who expects his son to be as ruthlessly carnivorous as he is. "You see something, you kill it, you eat it," Don Lino explains. "That's what sharks do."

What gives Tale its kick, at least for older viewers, is catching De Niro and Scorsese's familiar voices emerging from cartoon characters. (Scorsese is a puffer fish who speaks at rat-a-tat-tat speed.) That's fish schtick you can't refuse. (PG)

Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta
DRAMA

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Few people love a job as much 10 years down the road as they did on the first day—or, if they do, they love it differently. That's true for Jack Morrison (Phoenix, see page 26), a Baltimore firefighter who goes from an enthusiastic probie to a wary veteran over the course of this well-intentioned but plodding portrait of a fireman.

Ladder 49 begins with Morrison rescuing a man from a burning building, only to end up trapped there himself after the building collapses. While his fellow firefighters, led by their chief (Travolta), frantically work to rescue him, Morrison recalls his life via flashbacks: his first day at the firehouse, his courtship of his wife (Jacinda Barrett), his colleagues who died in fires and the times he questioned whether, as a father, he had the right to risk his life.

Phoenix is appealingly low-key, while Travolta is restricted mostly to playing sage Master to the younger actor's Grasshopper. Ladder, directed by Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting), is above all an earnest tribute to firefighters. (Disney, the releasing studio, says the script was in the works prior to 9/11.) But sincerity takes you only so far. The film often feels more quasi-documentary than dramatic, with the most effective moments coming when it concentrates on the mechanics of firefighting (how to lug a hose), not when it's aiming for big emotional notes. (PG-13)

Phoenix is appealingly low-key, while Travolta is restricted mostly to playing sage Master to the younger actor's Grasshopper. Ladder, directed by Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting), is above all an earnest tribute to firefighters. (Disney, the releasing studio, says the script was in the works prior to 9/11.) But sincerity takes you only so far. The film often feels more quasi-documentary than dramatic, with the most effective moments coming when it concentrates on the mechanics of firefighting (how to lug a hose), not when it's aiming for big emotional notes. (PG-13)

COMEDY

Jason Schwartzman, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg
COMEDY
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Socrates declared that the unexamined life isn't worth living, but what of the life examined too closely? It might unravel, as starts to happen to the navel-gazing characters in this intellectually giddy comedy.

I Heart Huckabees gets laughs by dramatizing the stuff Philosophy 101 students stay up all night debating—namely, trying to understand the yawning gap between being and nothingness. In the movie, fellows (including Schwartzman, Law and Wahlberg) dissatisfied with their lives hire a husband-and-wife team (Hoffman and Tomlin) who bill themselves as the Existential Detectives. The duo, tape recorders and notepads in hand, follow their clients around, observing daily activities and social interactions, to see if they can discern patterns that might reveal the meaning of their customers' lives.

Not all the jokes work, and the film, written and directed by David O. Russell (Three Kings), at times veers too close to preciousness and self-delight. But most of the time Huckabees is just wacky and original enough that, at least while you're viewing it, you're sucked into its weird orbit. Besides, if the sight of Tomlin (in plunging necklines and chic heels) and Hoffman (with a Beatles hair cut) skulking around in the bushes fails to make you giggle, if s time to jump into the great abyss. (R)

Shaun of the Dead

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The dead walk again (well, stumble would be more accurate) in a British zombie comedy that scores minor scares and major laughs. Simon Pegg (who cowrote the film) and Nick Frost star. (R)

Enduring Love

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A London teacher (Daniel Craig) is stalked by a stranger (Rhys Ifans) he met briefly when both attempted to stop a runaway hot-air balloon. Based on a novel by Ian McEwan, this intelligent drama is intriguing and ultimately moving as it examines the meaning of love and commitment. Roger Michell (Notting Hill) directed. (R)

Woman, Thou Art Loosed

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Partly the tale of a woman (Kimberly Elise, see page 129) coming to terms with her past and partly a showcase for the preachings of real-life evangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, Woman is heart felt melodrama with gospel roots. (R)

With only three weeks left before the presidential election, an unprecedented number of opinionated documentaries—from across the political spectrum—are coming to theaters and DVD. Here's a look at the latest slate.

In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed: An homage to the Gipper links his anticommunism strategies with Bush's antiterrorism efforts. In theaters this week.

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry: An in-depth look at Kerry's Vietnam journey-from Yale to the Mekong Delta to antiwar activism—by his pal George Butler (who introduced GOPer Arnold Schwarzenegger with 1977's Pumping Iron). In theaters this week; on DVD Oct. 19.

Fahrenheit 9/11: Michael Moore's Bush-whacking hit has seven new scenes. The funniest one shows retiree volunteers patrolling Florida's coast for terrorists. On DVD Oct. 5.

Celsius 41.11: Conservative Lionel Chetwynd's retort to Fahrenheit. The title? That's 106°F—at which the brain begins to die. In theaters soon.

Uncovered: The War on Iraq: Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed) claims Bush misled the U.S. On DVD Oct. 19, with bonus film Soldiers Pay by Three Kings director David O. Russell.

Bush's Brain: A critical profile of Republican strategist Karl Rove. On DVD Oct. 12.

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Sabrina McFarland,
  • Jane Sims Podesta And Michelle Tan.