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Shark Tale: All the Shrek With None of the Donkey

Just months after Shrek 2 broke all kinds of box office records, Shark Tale delivers DreamWorks another blockbuster performance, albeit on a more modest scale. After many frustrating years of living in rival Pixar’s shadow, 2004 truly belonged to DreamWorks. But has the upstart’s filmmaking prowess kept pace with its explosive financial growth? Shrek 2 received its fair share of critical applause, but I remain unimpressed with the franchise. The animation still seemed a little plain, the humor often crude and obvious, and Pixar-like heart and charm lacking. Would Shark Tale, armed with box office dynamo Will Smith, make a bigger splash? Well, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. Wait, so did Shrek 2. As usual, the Academy is good for little more than telling us who picks up their bar tab. I guess we’ll just have to dive in and find out for ourselves.

ImageAlthough it looks a lot like Finding Nemo, Shark Tale is really a kinder, gentler Shrek. It’s still a bit loud and lowbrow, but far more restrained than the gaseous green giant. It retains a healthy appetite for pop culture references and pop songs, but dispenses with the risqué and cynical trimmings. I found it on the whole to be more likeable than the Shrek films. Not that it was necessarily funnier. The laugh count stays about the same, as in low, but unlike Shrek I didn’t find the majority of the cast annoying, and it’s more visually appealing. Other than being rather generic and predictable, there are no significant negatives.

Our hero Oscar the fish (Smith) is a fast-talking slacker who works at a whale wash (yes, much like the automotive variety), but dreams of greater things. His co-worker fish Angie (Renee Zellweger) is smitten with him, but he fails to notice. Meanwhile, the mildly threatening shark mafioso Don Lino (Robert De Niro) has decided to turn rule of his territory over to his macho son Frankie and sensitive vegetarian son Lenny (Jack Black). Don Lino is leaning on Oscar’s sleazy blowfish boss Sykes (Martin Scorsese) for protection money, so Sykes in turn demands that Oscar pay up his 5,000 clam (hah!) debt in 24 hours or face serious consequences. Angie gives Oscar a valuable pearl she inherited so he can pay his debt, but he ends up gambling it away at the seahorse racetrack. Sykes’ jellyfish henchmen Ernie and Bernie take Oscar out into the wilderness to get rid of him, but Lenny, whom Frankie is trying to teach to hunt, interrupts them. When Lenny fails to eat Oscar, Frankie goes on the attack, only to have an anchor suddenly drop and kill him.

Oscar takes credit for the shark’s demise and becomes an instant celebrity, reaping fame and fortune as the “shark slayer.” Lenny happens upon Oscar and insists that Oscar take him in or he will spill the beans about the so-called slaying. Thus Lenny and Oscar act out a battle in public in which Oscar seemingly kills Lenny, scaring off Don Lino’s gang. The seductive gold digger fish Lola (Angelina Jolie) seizes the moment to put the moves on Oscar (hmm, so unlike the real Angelina), much to the irritation of Angie. Oscar eventually realizes that it’s Angie who truly loves him and he goes to woo her only to find Don Lino has kidnapped her. Oscar, Lenny (disguised as a dolphin), and Sykes then head off to try to rescue Angie.

As usual, DreamWorks has stacked the deck with celebrity talent, and this is another impressive lineup. Well, De Niro is so overexposed these days he’s liable to turn up snorting maggots on Fear Factor, but otherwise it’s impressive. Smith works his usual wisecracking playa charm as Oscar and does a solid job of carrying the film on his shoulders. Stars or not, none of the other actors really makes much of an impression. Scorsese is admittedly somewhat amusing as a Woody Allen-ish mobster, and one wonders what prompted him to finally throw his hat into the acting ring. Zellweger and Jolie’s characters are so generic that one wonders if these lovely ladies were really worth the premium price tag. Maybe Smith just demanded some hotties on the set. Interestingly they’re both white, which may be a cinematic first. The one big disappointment is Black’s Lenny. In films like School of Rock Black erupted hysterically in a wild explosion of comic energy, but here he gives a very understated performance in an odd, barely recognizable voice. Really a wasted opportunity. Also, although Lenny is presented as an outcast for being a vegetarian, there are some hints that this is perhaps intended as an analogy for homosexuality. That would be a bold move in an animated family feature, but the film doesn’t really develop it.

The underwater setting is much more colorful and charismatic than Shrek‘s generic fairy tale world. Not that it avoids clichés mind you. The fish inhabit a coral encrusted Times Square, while the sharks live in the wreck of Titanic. The character designs draw the most attention to the film, fishlike but with eerily human faces. Some characters such as Oscar do bear an uncanny resemblance to the voice actors portraying them, but in other cases it’s just sort of creepy. At any rate, the slightly more cartoony style is much better carried off by the CG than the attempted realism of Shrek. Overall the animation may be just a notch above Shrek, but not quite Nemo.

There are some great moments in the film, but they fly by quickly. The movie starts with a marvelously creative bang, segueing from the opening credits directly into the story. The boy on the DreamWorks moon casts his fishing line into the sea, carrying a terrified worm right into Lenny’s path. Just fantastic. During the introductory fish city montage a quick cut to a sushi restaurant hilariously reveals it to be completely empty and the owner despondent. In a Looney Tunes moment Angie abruptly stabs herself with a pen and keels over at being called a “friend” by Oscar, then is immediately back up and smiling when he turns back to look at her. There’s a great scene stealing moment when a tiny shrimp (from a plate of shrimp cocktail) tells an incredibly long spontaneous sob story about its tough job and handicapped child when faced with being eaten by Lenny.

As with the Shrek films, this DVD is loaded, although much is for the kiddies. In Get Your Groove On tykes can learn the characters’ dance moves such as the Hustle from a dance instructor, while mom and dad breathe a sigh of relief that they are somehow still hip two decades later. The Car Wash video shows a scantily clad Christina (Hey, there’s kids watching! And me – yowza!) and Missy Elliott sing the closer “Car Wash.” Next come the inevitable tedious games, perhaps intended more to induce vegetable consumption than to entertain. In Disguise Lenny you can dress up Lenny in various disguises a la Barbie, which brings us back to his possible, uh, identity issue. Fish Eat Fish teaches about various marine life as you guess their position in the food chain. In Place Your Bets, an insult even to drooling toddlers, you choose a sea horse to cheer for and then watch the exact same race footage as in the film. Exact. Here’s a hint kids – Seabiscuit’s a sure thing.

Moving over to the slightly more mature side, Rough Waters shows a bunch of boring animation goofs and Star Fish introduces the cast. The Color Script presents a template gallery for several scenes, showing the color guide animators used. It’s an interesting detail for animation fans that I haven’t seen before, although not terribly absorbing to look at. The Music of Shark Tale introduces some of the musical talent and A Fishified World talks about the art design choices, which mainly involved taking real things and putting a fishy twist on them. Usually with a horrible pun. Kelpy Kreme indeed. There’s a commentary with the directors and writer and Gigi the Whale offers a dull animated conversation with one of the mob killer whales from the film. The best feature has to be A Tour You Can’t Reef-use, which displays lots of neat sketches and paintings of the characters and backgrounds.

Shrek fans should enjoy Shark Tale, with no need to fear their children picking up on any innuendo. Kids who loved Finding Nemo should eat this up as well, but adults will quickly discern the difference. It’s a harmless enough way to kill time, pretty enough to look at even during the long stretches between giggles. Besides it’s only 81 minutes. Why, that’s barely even enough time to sink your auditor in the Hudson. Er, or so Don Lino tells me.

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