Film Reviews: Friday, September 29, 2004
Oscar and Lenny share a chummy moment in ‘Shark Tale.’
Shark Tale
Voices by Will Smith, Jack Black, Renée Zellweger, and Robert De Niro. Directed by Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron, and Rob Letterman. Written by Rob Letterman and Michael J. Wilson. Rated PG.
Big Fish

Shark Tale is hardly Oscar-worthy, but it has some un-Nemo-like charms.


Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Six years ago, DreamWorks Animation’s Antz was followed closely by Pixar’s not as funny but visually superior insect-themed A Bug’s Life. Now DreamWorks’ latest film, Shark Tale, comes closely on the heels of another recent high-profile movie set on the ocean. Every hack critic in the world will be saying the same thing, but the comparison is so glaringly obvious that there’s no point in ignoring it. So here it is: Shark Tale is a much better and more enjoyable film than Open Water.

Oh, you mean that other movie? Well, Finding Nemo is better than this one. It lacks that movie’s virtuoso technique — Shark Tale’s fish are rendered colorfully enough, but the animators can’t match Pixar’s colors for tactility and succulence, nor can they give the movie that prismatic glow that convinces us that we’re watching everything happen underwater. Yet don’t think of Shark Tale as a poorer version of Nemo, but rather as a funnier, hipper version of Analyze This.

Its unusually complicated plot begins with Oscar (voiced by Will Smith), a tiny fish called a cleaner wrasse who lives on a coral reef and works a job at a whale-washing establishment. He dreams of getting out of his low-rent neighborhood and living in the penthouses on top of the reef, but he keeps running afoul of the shark-run organized crime rackets. In the sharks’ part of the ocean, Lenny (voiced by Jack Black) is a great white whose dad, an all-powerful mob boss named Don Lino (voiced by Robert De Niro), wants to introduce him into the family business. Preferring a vegetarian lifestyle, Lenny dreams of escaping his destiny as a gangster, especially when his brother Frankie (voiced by Michael Imperioli) dies after being crushed by a ship’s anchor while trying to make a meal out of Oscar.

In exchange for helping Lenny hide out from his family, Oscar takes credit for killing Frankie and becomes a mythic hero called the Shark Slayer to the other fish on the reef. This allows the movie to parody everything from hip-hop music videos to Gap ads to media coverage of celebrities, as Oscar’s exploits are breathlessly chronicled by a tv-reporter fish named Katie Current (voiced by — presto! — Katie Couric). During a sea-horse race, one of the horses is named Seabiscuit. When Frankie dies, he crashes into the ocean floor just like the spaceship in Men in Black. There’s a sly subtext about the real reason Lenny’s afraid to return home (which has to do with his adopted disguise as a dolphin named Sebastian, complete with a fabulous scarf), but mostly the film is about squeezing gags into the corner of the frame and indulging in clever pop-culture in-jokes.

Much of Shark Tale’s comic mileage comes from its rapid-fire send-up of mob movies. The film has already drawn fire from some Italian-American groups, but I think most audiences will recognize that the movie is making fun of cinematic conventions rather than engaging in ethnic stereotyping. (Although that can’t be said for the two Jamaican-accented jellyfish characters, voiced by Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley, depicted as low-level thugs who harass Oscar. This is at the very least insensitive.) The references to the Godfather movies and Goodfellas are well chosen, and the most delirious gag is the dead-on montage of Frankie’s funeral, replete with a coffin, pallbearers, and weeping sharks whose dark coloring makes them look like they’re wearing mourning clothes, and capped appropriately by an anonymous shark singing a croaky karaoke rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings” at the wake.

The romantic subplot involving Angie (voiced by Renée Zellweger), an angelfish who secretly carries a torch for Oscar, is hopelessly overshadowed by Lola (voiced by Angelina Jolie), who gloms onto Oscar for a piece of his newfound fame. Listening to the purr in Jolie’s voice will likely leave you gasping for air and remind you of what an erotic presence she can be, even when you can’t see her. Yet even she, along with all of the other big-name talent in this cast, is upstaged by Martin Scorsese as Mr. Sykes, a puffer fish who starts out as Oscar’s boss at the whale wash. Always a constrained presence on the few occasions that he’s been on camera, here he cuts loose hilariously, when Sykes becomes Oscar’s obsequious business manager, sucking up to his client with lines like, “Who’s your puff daddy?” Scorsese’s fast-talking comic take on a white guy trying to act black is every bit as funny as it is unexpected, and it helps make Shark Tale a tasty little morsel.

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