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Shark Tale   D

DreamWorks Animation

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron, Rob Letterman
Writers: Michael J. Wilson, Rob Letterman
Cast: Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Renée Zellweger, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, Ziggy Marley, Doug E. Doug, Michael Imperioli.

Review by Rob Vaux

Psst! DreamWorks! Your Nemo envy is showing! With computer animation now apparently the only show in town, it may have been tempting to emulate Pixar's staggeringly profitable fish-out-of-water movie. Shark Tale, unfortunately, lacks even the basic tools to compete with the wonder, humor, or imagination of its predecessor. It's purely a product of corporate thinking, dictated by focus groups and market testing rather than any hint of creativity. It has the same underwater setting as Finding Nemo, along with the bright colors and impressive technical imagery. But when it tries to find its own voice, it goes staggeringly, horribly awry.

The missteps are easy to spot, and begin with its approach to the characters. Celebrity voice-overs in animated films have been the rage since Robin Williams' Aladdin days, and Shark Tale responds by loading up the cast with gigantic names: Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Renée Zellweger... and that's just the top of the marquee. But having secured so many A-list stars, it feels an insistent need to showcase them visually as well as audibly, dressing up its fish characters with the attributes of the actors playing them. So De Niro's shark Don Lino sports a trademark mole, Jolie's lionfish has puffy pillow lips, and so on. The effect is unintentionally disturbing, more Dr. Moreau than Dr. Seuss. Moreover, the characters lose any sense of distinct personality. There's nothing resonant or memorable about them; they're simply ciphers for the celebrity voices behind them, cartoon fish mugging at the camera like some Bizarro World issue of People.

To that, Shark Tale adds a production design that struggles to find cohesion, and a story that goes beyond connect-the-dots. It makes a nice use of light and color in its depiction of an underwater city, built within a coral reef and housing all manner of sea life aping what the suits glibly refer to as "urban culture." There, Smith's fast-talking Oscar dreams of life as a big shot, while Black's vegetarian great white Lenny seeks escape from his Mafia shark family. It's a shabby effort to impart trite life lessons in the most expedient way possible, touching on expected notions and following a pattern that would bore a bright six-year-old. If the story were live action and set in New York, it wouldn't make it out of the development phase, but because it's been cloaked in fishy trappings -- underwater cabbies snarling in Pakistani, jellyfish sporting Rastafarian dreadlocks, and cringe-inducing corporate puns like Coral-Cola and The Gup -- it's somehow supposed to pass muster.

Indeed, the human-fish conglomeration never finds an even keel, lurching between the merely hackneyed to the truly strange. Everything is pushed a few steps in the wrong direction, losing the potentially inventive ways of how fish might approximate human society in favor of lazy quasi-assumptions. For example, there's a car wash for scrubbing down whales and a racetrack featuring sea horses, but cell phones, lava lamps, and streetlights are exactly the same as they would be on the surface. Why would the fish have such devices? Or more importantly, why wouldn't they fashion them from the surrounding materials -- as they do with other elements of their lives -- instead of just using human tools underwater? Normally, such a question wouldn't be bothersome, but the sum effect gives this universe an unsettling artifice that never truly sells itself, and occasionally stumbles into a pure unfiltered acid trip. The sight of acclaimed director Martin Scorsese -- in puffer fish form, wearing a pimp hat, and speaking in urban vernacular -- signals that something important is going on. The Repent Your Sins kind of important.

A more daring or adult project might have done better with the core concepts, but so much of Shark Tale reeks of naked pre-packaging that even the mistakes are soullessly calculated. There isn't a single moment of inspiration or intelligence here; it's all been blasted out by the market research that has sculpted the final product into oblivion. Shark Tale exists solely to provide fodder for Happy Meals, to let a few celebrities come to work in their sweat pants, and to give DreamWorks Animation the pretense of keeping up with the Joneses. We know they can do better than this. The only thing Shark Tale leaves is the question of why they didn't.

Review published 09.30.2004.

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