The Squid and the Whale, My Neighbor Tortoro, and The Chronicles of Naria

Plus a round-up of other new titles.

The Squid and the Whale

Sony, $26.96

Lots of top critics (Richard Corliss, moi) chose Noah Baumbach's breakthrough third feature as their favorite film of 2005, and not just because of its irresistibility to writers. It's inspired by the divorce of Baumbach's parents, both New York film critics and literary lights (his mom, Georgia Brown, wrote for Seattle Weekly's mother ship, The Village Voice); star Jeff Daniels is a playwright in real life; and star Laura Linney's dad, Romulus (as she recounts on the invaluable commentary track), almost got in a car wreck with the director's dad, Jonathan Baumbach, when both were at the hoity-toity literary colony Yaddo. This movie is lucky to be alive!

And boy, is it ever alive—a vivid, ruthless, intellectual, heart-lacerating study of a fissioning nuclear family. Daniels has never had a better part, Linney is easily his equal, and the actors playing their two young sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) are boy wonders. DVD extras include Phillip Lopate's supremely intelligent HBO interview with Baumbach and a commentary consisting of 35 brief answers from director, cast, and crew to the questions you're apt to have—like what the heck the title means. Baumbach claims the central song, Pink Floyd's "Hey You," was in the script, but in the making-of featurette, we're there the day Eisenberg is displeased to find they couldn't get the rights to "Behind Blue Eyes," and he must learn the new tune.

But it's all highly intelligent, informative, and psychologically acute. I love that Baumbach manipulated his friends Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates into letting him cast their son by asking their permission at dinner with Owen at the table. His insight alone into Daniels' and Linney's performances is worth buying the disc for. As I suspected, he didn't exactly write the great moment when Daniels' character asks too late if he can save the marriage, then erupts and threatens to sue. That incredible play of emotions across Linney's face—sad affection, discomfort, anger at being manipulated, and then, after his outburst, horror expressed while her smile muscles are still flexed from laughing—was supplied by Linney. "I didn't tell her to do it," Baumbach marvels. TIM APPELO

My Neighbor Totoro

Disney, $29.99

After a slow start, the Disney DVD division has now released essentially the entire oeuvre of Japanese anime genius Hayao Miyazaki. Opinions differ among adult fans which is the greatest of the master's films: the epic fantasy of Laputa: Island in the Sky? The comic aerobatics of Porco Rosso? The grim eco-allegory Princess Mononoke? Among viewers from, say, ages 3 to 10, however, one film stands alone: 1988's My Neighbor Totoro.

Totoro is not really the story of the mythic wood creature who bears that name. From the opening credits, Miyazaki's heroine is 3-year-old Mei, a child of terrifying independence and courage whose adventurousness leads her older sister into an adventure of discovery in an apparently humdrum summer stay in the post–World War II countryside of Japan. For adult viewers, the poignancy of the world Miyazaki creates adds extra dimension to the children's spectral adventures with animate dust bunnies, feline vehicles with rat headlights, and the gigantic totoro itself. But for maximum impact, put off watching the movie until you have a preschooler or two to watch it with you. ROGER DOWNEY

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Disney, $34.99

In an interview included on this double-disc "collector's edition," director Andrew Adamson explains that he originally had no interest in adapting C.S. Lewis' children's classic, but instead wanted to film his own memory of the story. So before rereading the book, he made a list of everything he remembered about it from boyhood. The idea was to capture a child's wonder at encountering Narnia for the first time, rather than getting bogged down in details from, you know, the actual book.

And so what we get is a little boy's version of Narnia—heavy on the fighting, the noise, and the pageantry, with an added World War II battle scene at the beginning just to start things off with a bang. Happily, Adamson (Shrek) also gets the children at the heart of the story just right, largely by casting four winning young actors who— by the looks of the making-of featurettes—had the time of their lives visiting Lewis' enchanted land.

The movie's dark and claustrophobic first half is made even more so by the confines of the small screen. But the later, sun-drenched battle suffers not a whit. The DVD package includes hours and hours of extras, documenting how the animals, magical creatures, and action scenes were filmed and animated. The moviemaking magic never surpasses the plain old magic of Lewis' well-loved story, but the two combine to make a solidly entertaining family picture. LYNN JACOBSON

dvd@seattleweekly.com

 
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