SHARK TALE (PG, 92 minutes)
A rollicking, occasionally salty fish story about the importance of being true to oneself, this animated "Shark Tale" may be difficult to understand, both in terms of plot and humor, for some kids under 8. The under-8s may also find it a bit scary, with great white sharks threatening violence. There are several scenes in which the sharks, who talk like movie gangsters, loom up, bare their teeth and chase the protagonists. One fish is briefly taken hostage. The film contains toilet humor (whale poop and spit-up), mild sexual innuendo and lots of never-profane, but still-tough talk.
Will Smith voices the reluctant hero, Oscar, a big-talking little fish who lives at the bottom of the food chain in a coral reef that looks a bit like Manhattan under water. Oscar scrubs tongues at a whale wash (hilariously rendered) but yearns for more. He meets a great white shark named Lenny (Jack Black) just as Lenny's brother (Michael Imperioli) crashes into an anchor and dies. Oscar expects Lenny to eat him, but Lenny confesses he's a vegetarian. He can't muster the nerve to tell his dad, Don Lino (Robert De Niro), who rules the reef. Little Oscar, because he was spotted at the scene of the accident, lets others think he killed the shark. He becomes a celebrity -- a shark slayer. Lenny hides out at Oscar's, disguised as a dolphin, but all this fakery can't last.
Many teenagers will see in the "Shark Tale" narrative a cleverly drawn parallel to the real-life difficulty faced by kids who recognize they march to a different drummer and would like their parents to understand.
The computer animation brims with visual jokes and opulent colors. Now and then does the underwater atmosphere disappear -- a flaw that seems to leave the fish swimming on dry land.
LADDER 49 (PG-13, 115 minutes)
Fueled by Joaquin Phoenix's quiet, powerful, unfussy performance, "Ladder 49" examines in a simple, focused drama why firefighters love their work and why their families worry. Despite its basic conventionality, the film is surprisingly effective and moving. The harrowing fire sequences are shot in a way that brings the viewer right into the chaos and flames. Teenagers will likely enjoy the intensity of those scenes -- less so the love, marriage and family story that runs parallel to them. The fires, explosions and collapses can be scary. One firefighter has skin grafts on his burned face, but most injuries are not graphic. Civilians, including children, are shown in danger. Occasional profanity, sexual innuendo, a homophobic joke, drinking and smoking earn the PG-13.
Phoenix plays Jack Morrison, a Baltimore firefighter. After he gets separated from his colleagues in a burning grain elevator, the movie recounts in flashbacks his professional life, cutting often to his present predicament, where the captain (a somewhat miscast John Travolta) leads the rescue effort. We see Jack as a rookie arriving at the station and falling prey to an elaborate practical joke. He meets Linda (Jacinda Barrett), marries and has a family. Linda worries and Jack broods about the pull between job and family.