Weekly DVD/Video Picks

Shark Tale  (2004)

Shark Tale is not an anthropomorphic fish story; it’s a fishified people movie, full of puns and references to pop culture. For example, when Oscar (Will Smith) gets in trouble with a mob boss over borrowed money, the moneylenders are sharks. (They’re also Italian — and Catholic, judging from a snatch of Latin during a funeral.) Ultimately, Oscar learns that you don’t need money to be someone. Shark Tale also touches on such themes as telling the truth, the difference between real friends and false popularity, the dangers of gambling and get-rich-quick schemes, and taking pride in oneself and one’s roots.

While the film avoids Shrek 2-style cross-dressing jokes, adults may not appreciate (though kids won’t notice) themes involving a sissy shark who “dresses” like a dolphin as a disguise, to his macho father’s chagrin. Still, for ’tweens and up, Shark Tale is a fun ride, thanks to zippy storytelling, zingy dialogue and energetic vocal performances.

Content advisory: Some violent language and mild crude humor; largely hip-hop soundtrack that might be annoying or stressful to some.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  (1962)

John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Two American icons who embody such different ideals that it’s almost inconceivable that they should both play heroes in the same film. (They also worked together in How the West Was Won and The Shootist.) But in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance John Ford throws these two ideals side by side: toughness versus sensitivity, frontier grit versus civilized decency, rugged individualism versus communal values. The result is a remarkably complex and nuanced take on the Western that acknowledges the necessity and the limitations of both ideals — and explores the West’s transition from rugged individualism to civilized law and order.

What brings the two men together is a local bully named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who dominates the small frontier town where Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), an idealistic young lawyer, is trying to set up a practice. Stoddard wants to bring Valance to justice, but Tom Doniphon (Wayne), a local rancher, tries to tell Stoddard his book learning is useless out here. Both romantic and cynical, it’s famous for the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Content advisory: Some strong frontier violence.

My Darling Clementine  (1946)

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, like Errol Flynn as Robin Hood in The Adventures of Robin Hood, is something of an oddity. Neither actor is anyone’s abstract idea of the icon he plays, yet each owns his role so completely that he transforms it. Ford could easily have cast John Wayne as Earp; Roger Ebert speculates that Ford perhaps “saw Wayne as the embodiment of the Old West, and the gentler Fonda as one of the new men who would tame the wilderness.”

That the film’s title offers no indication that it is about Wyatt Earp or the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral is a clue to why this retelling is the classic one. Movies named after famous events are often too baggage-conscious to convey what it must have been like to actually live through the events without the sense of witnessing history in the making. The film’s title also puts the emphasis not on the shootout or the hero, but on a schoolmarm and, thus, on the coming of civilization to the frontier.

Content advisory: Frontier violence and gunplay; romantic complications.