To be perfectly honest, there’s no way to be fair to Shark Tale, the new film from DreamWorks Animation. This is a computer-animated feature dealing with undersea creatures such as fish and sharks. As such, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Pixar’s Finding Nemo, which came out just last year. Watching this film, it is utterly impossible not to think of Nemo - and that ultimately proves to be a distraction. I sat in my seat at the press screening with a funny feeling; I was not having a bad time but I was constantly aware that I was seeing a version of this material that didn’t measure up to the one I’d seen previously. That was a week ago. As of this writing, the movie opens tomorrow. Still, I struggle with the question: Would Shark Tale have seemed better had there never been a Finding Nemo?
Actually, it probably doesn’t matter, because there was a Finding Nemo and now there is a Shark Tale. And since most of us have seen Pixar’s massively popular fish tale, I certainly won’t be the only one to walk out of this new film feeling less than impressed.
The early scenes bubble with promise as we see an underwater world that looks suspiciously like Times Square. Visual gags are everywhere, and for a time it seems like two computer-animated fish movies will work after all. Then the story kicks in. Will Smith provides the voice of Oscar, a fish who works at a “whale wash” (similar to a car wash but intended for…well, you know.) The receptionist is Angie (Renee Zellweger), who harbors a secret love for Oscar, although he views her as just a friend. Oscar feels like he has a low station in life, a fact reinforced by his blowfish manager Sykes (Martin Scorsese), who tells him that he’s lower than “whale poo.”
The other main character is a shark named Lenny (Jack Black). Now, Lenny is not your ordinary shark. He’s a vegetarian, much to the dismay of his father Don Lino (Robert DeNiro). As the names imply, the sharks in the movie are portrayed using mob-movie stereotypes; they want to control the sea and put the squeeze on anyone who stands in their way. (Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore of “The Sopranos” also provide shark voices.) Don Lino expects Lenny to join the family business but is ashamed that his son is unable to eat other creatures, which is a basic job requirement.
One day, Oscar crosses paths with Lenny. They strike up a deal in which they will stage a fake fight for all to see. The fish will appear to slay the shark. The benefit of this is that Oscar will become a hero to all the other fish, while Lenny can disappear and hide from his family. The plan works beautifully, but there are complications, such as when a sultry fish named Lola (Angelina Jolie) tries to seduce the newly-famous “shark slayer.” Then Don Lino finds out that his son isn’t really dead and sets out to make someone pay. (Yes, there is a joke about “sleeping with the fishes.”)
The first problem with Shark Tale should be obvious: how many children are going to get all the Mafia references? The beauty of the Pixar movies has been simplicity in storytelling. Finding Nemo? Father searches ocean for lost son. Toy Story? Older toy laments being replaced new newer, fancier toy. Even the Shrek films – which, like this one, hail from DreamWorks – had simple, universal stories: ogre finds true love and self-acceptance. Shark Tale, meanwhile, spends a lot of time setting up a story that is too complicated for its target audience of children. Although I appreciate the fact that animated movies routinely contain some sophisticated humor for the adults, the whole Mafia idea has been parodied to death. We get all the same jokes about the “whacking” of enemies, the “sit-down” between the heads of various families, and so on. Kids won’t get it; adults will feel comedic déjà vu.
The other major problem is that the characters aren’t nearly as memorable or interesting as those in previous computer-animated features. The actors here do the best they can but the character concepts don’t allow them to shine at full potential. Nothing here can match the hilarity of Ellen DeGeneres as the forgetful Dorie, or Antonio Bandaras as the swashbuckling Puss in Boots, or Eddie Murphy as the wisecracking Donkey. In fact, the characters aren’t really characters at all; they’re merely reflections of the stars’ personas. Oscar overflows with Will Smith’s hip-hopping bravado, Angie is Zellweger’s Bridget Jones character as a fish, Don Lino hews close to DeNiro’s Italian Mafioso roles, and Lola is Angelina Jolie being her vixen self. The script should have created fully-realized characters for the actors to play rather than making them play themselves or replay their own familiar roles.
To be fair, Shark Tale has its pleasures. There are laughs here, some of them quite big. Where else will you hear Martin Scorsese performing a few bars of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”? The jellyfish (portrayed as underwater Rastafarians) are pretty funny as well. The look of the movie is good, filled with interesting little details and an imaginative visual style. I particularly like that whale wash, which offers some truly amusing sight gags.
I don’t want to send the message that Shark Tale is bad; it isn’t. I found it a diverting, pleasant, innocuous movie to sit through. But do I recommend it? That’s another matter. Computer-animated films have found enthusiastic critical and commercial success from the beginning, but Finding Nemo and Shrek 2 really raised the bar during the last year and a half. And that makes the flaws here seem more glaring. The pleasures that exist tend to be pushed aside by the constant realization that Shark Tale just isn’t at the same level, plain and simple. Fair? Probably not, but that’s the reality of this particular moviegoing experience.
( 1/2 out of four)
Shark Tale is rated PG for mild language and crude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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