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‘Shark Tale’ More ‘Sinbad’ Than ‘Shrek’

DreamWorks Once Again Poorly Retreads Disney Ground

By Philip Burrowes

staff writer

Shark Tale

Written by Rob Letterman, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift, Michael J. Wilson

Directed by Bibo Bergerson, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman

Starring Will Smith, Jack Black, Robert De Niro, Renee Zellweger. Martin Scorsese


Rated PG

Oct. 1, 2004

Shark Tale is promoted as a movie in the vein of fellow DreamWorks production “Shrek.” Both are computer animated, both feature an all-star cast, and both aspire for a more mature audience than the family-oriented fare Disney is (in)famous for. What Shark Tale lacks is a William Steig to provide a worthy premise. Instead, it jumps between a half-hearted parody of mob films and a curiously dated send-up of the cult of celebrity. Combined with the studio’s generally lackluster artistic record, Shark Tale further suffers because of its abject inferiority to fellow fish-flick “Finding Nemo.” As with “Antz” and “The Road to El Dorado,” DreamWorks has managed to take the same setting as a contemporaneous Disney film and produce a far less memorable tale.

The first joke seems okay -- if a bit obvious -- but foreshadows the problems to come. Great White shark Frankie (Michael Imperioli) is singing the Jaws theme, which perturbs his milquetoast brother Lenny (Jack Black). Frankie asks how Lenny could possibly not like the song, since it’s a shark’s theme. It would have been okay if it was the sole Jaws reference, but later Lenny is sent flying through a billboard for Jaws toothpaste, leaving a mouth-shaped hole that replicates the original film poster. Similarly, the shark-led mafia lives in a sunken ship that resembles a certain ocean liner, but if you don’t get the connection the first few times you see it, we are eventually shown a RMS Titanic life preserver.

Meanwhile, the fish live in a marine-Manhattan, complete with a Times Square for aquatic-themed advertisements. Like Shrek 2’s Far Far Away, there are too many visual puns to soak in at once, but unlike Shrek 2, we are hit over the head with a few of them. Were the writers actually proud of conceiving “Coral-Cola” or “Kelpy Kreme”? It’s either that or we can call them on the blatant product placement.

Down on the south side of the reef, Oscar (Will Smith) longs to be on those corny billboards, but must settle for having his visage tagged by local juvenile delinquents. At least that’s the case until he takes credit for Frankie’s death in a freak anchor accident and becomes a media darling as the “sharkslayer.” Lenny, on the run from his father -- the mafia don (Robert De Niro) -- for refusing to eat other animals, blackmails Oscar into hiding him lest the truth about Frankie’s death be revealed. They fake Lenny’s death and then Katie Couric shows up as “Katie Current,” but the truly confusing part of all of this is the question “why is there graffiti underwater?”

Not that it’s any less ridiculous than a shark mafia, but at least the mafia is a trope which remains popular. Has graffiti even been remotely popular since the early nineties? Shark Tale is littered with such references to early nineties’ hip-hop: Sir Mix-a-Lot, Tag Team, Keith Murray, and -- worst of all -- M. C. Hammer all get gleefully indexed. That would be fine if there were the slightest mention of the moderately modern, but anything more contemporary than “wassup” (which is also thrown in) was apparently too much for the writers. Someone must have told them Smith used to be a rapper and decided to make him feel at home.

In all fairness, the writers didn’t have the best pedigree, with one on his first script, and two coming off “Freddy v. Jason” -- only Michael J. Wilson’s work on Ice Age seemed remotely connected. The directorial team was equally unheralded, although Vicky Jensen was one of the two directors on Shrek. You would think a cast packed with Academy Award winners and nominees might be able to lift the project from the depths of mediocrity.

All the mafioso do a fine job, mostly because they’re playing characters they’ve done to death. Robert De Niro once again plays a mafia don. Imperioli and Vincent Pastore pretty much reprise their respective Soprano roles as impulsive younger relative and right-hand man to the Don. Black might seem miscast as an introverted pacifist, but he pulls it off by putting on a voice that sounds nothing like the bombast he typically portrays.

On the prey side, things don’t look so rosy, especially since non-actor Martin Scorsese turns in the best performance. Doug E. Doug once again employs his fake Jamaican accent as Bernie, a dreadlocked jellyfish enforcer for Scorsese’s fugu. If you’re wondering why a fugu would need a bodyguard, it’s because he manages a “Whale Wash” that’s really a front for the sharks. We never learn why, as the plot tells us Angie’s (an angelfish played by Renee Zellweger, get it?) obsession with layabout Oscar is more important for some reason.

Believe it or not, Smith is one of the aforementioned Oscar-nominees. Unfortunately, in this role he seems to have regressed into his overacting Fresh Prince-phase. At no point will you feel bad for him since he’s a lazy liar motivated merely by the shame of being teased (unlike Lenny, who is a victim of discrimination that teeters tantalizingly close to homophobia). Once it’s time for the obligatory happy ending, you’ll wonder why Oscar deserves any success, but before you know it, DreamWorks tries once more to emulate Shrek with a musical finale. Even that’s off; since they chose to import musicians in a movie starring two former artists.

In sum, unless you desperately want to see a jellyfish-version of Christina Aguilera, don’t bite.