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Shark Tale is proof that despite DreamWorks’ success with the hilarious world of Shrek; they still aren't ready to hang with the Pixar big boys. Perhaps it's unfair to compare them continually to CGI animation's 1 ton gorilla, but when they follow up the success of Pixar's fish movie with an underwater CGI movie of their own, they're asking for it.
Shark Tale is a slight adventure that blatantly panders to all the worst aspects of modern pop culture. The plot is a helpless mish mash of storylines and themes ripped from some of the most commonly overused devices in cinema. I guess though it's best explained as a hip-hop clone of Dragonheart, since it steals the same basic tale, that of a loser befriending a frightening monster and then staging battles with it to impress easily fooled crowds.
It's the story of Oscar (Will Smith), a funky little fish voiced by Will Smith, and gifted with a personality identical to TV's Fresh Prince of Bel Aire. He's funky fresh ya'll and lives in the hood. He wears gold chains and a backwards hat, hangs out with "shorties" who like tagging (Who knew spray paint worked under water?), and dreams of getting more bling bling without doing any work to earn it. He reminded me a lot of a character named "Poochie" who appeared in an episode of "The Simpsons" as a sharp stick to the lowest common denominator loving groin of lame TV Networks. Like Poochie, Oscar is a combination of all the worst aspects of pop culture; his personality begins and ends as nothing more than a lame stereotype.
Oscar's crib is in the middle of a coral reef, which doesn't really resemble a corral reef. Rather than take advantage of their underwater settings to create a beautiful and functional fish environment, the folks behind Shark Tale opted instead to take what appears to be a CGI model of New York and fill it with bubbles. The fish even use elevators. They have couches. They decorate their living rooms with everything a proper player needs to be "funky fresh". Someone please explain to me how a fish can use a Playstation? Oh I forgot, these fish all have hands. In fact, I think the biggest problem plaguing Oscar's coral reef isn't so much the ever present threat of sharks, but the tendency of its populace to randomly forget that they are fish and thus know how to swim.
So Oscar hangs out in the ghetto part of the reef, wishing that someday he might make it big enough to live at the top. Since he's a cheap stereotype, he gets into debt with the wrong people, takes advantage of a cute little female fish (Renee Zellweger) who is hopelessly in love with him and is also his best friend, then ends up tied up in the middle of the ocean by jellyfish henchmen, where he waits for a shark to come along and eat him. The sharks that find him are Lenny (Jack Black) and Frankie (Michael Imperioli), sons of the local shark Don (Robert De Niro). Lenny is a vegetarian and Frank is out on orders from his father to teach his brother to stop being a total puss and act like a real shark. Through a series of silly accidents, Frankie is killed and Lenny sets Oscar free. Oscar takes credit for the death of Frankie, and soon everyone in the reef is heralding him as Sharkslayer, protector of the reef. Oscar gets to live at the top of the reef with a disturbingly sexualized floozie fish (Angelina Jolie), and Lenny gets to escape from his father the Don, who can never accept Lenny's kindhearted ways. Of course nothing goes as planned, the Don isn't happy about the death of his son, things go awry, lessons are learned, Lenny dresses up as an effeminate dolphin named Sebastian, and well, you get the picture.
While Shark Tale's underwater production design isn't particularly creative, visually it's colorful enough and the CGI is well rendered and sharp. Will Smith's annoying funky freshness aside, the voice talent isn’t all terrible. Jack Black is ok as the wussy shark Lenny and Renee Zellwegger is a treat as Oscar's besotted best friend. A few of the jokes will give you a giggle or two and look out for a Peter Falk cameo that'll have you rolling in the isles. The soundtrack started to grate the third or fourth time I was forced to listen to "Carwash" but otherwise I guess it's all mundane enough to be palatable.
Still, Shark Tale is barely a movie about fish and is nearly a movie about sea monkeys. The fact that it is set underwater plays into the story so rarely that it's easy to forget you're under the ocean. I'm not sure the fish even know they're fish. I'm not entirely sure myself that they are. The only real signs that this is the film's setting are a variety of cheap "Flintstones" like references that vaguely point to some sort of secret underwater culture that's nearly identical to ours, except with more kelp.
What really stings though is the movie's complete lack of heart. Pixar makes generation spanning movies that touch the heart and bring well developed and lovable characters to the screen. Even Shrek is at least memorable. Shark Tale is just an empty, ill-considered shell that feels like it was written only to cash in on America's post-Nemo love of fish. It's more concerned with being trendy and wild-ass than developing anything smart enough to stick with you.
There are two ways to make kids movies. You can put in some catchy songs, throw some pretty colors on the screen, give us a semi-wacky character or two, animate it or dress people in funny costumes, and kids will probably like it. Heck, little kids like Barney don't they? It's not hard to make something the rugrats will watch. You can do that, or you can do what Disney used to do and Pixar now does: Create a family classic that has some heft, tell stories with meaning and heart, stories that just about anyone can identify with and love. For a big budget picture like Shark Tale to so obviously have chosen the Barney route is unforgivable. Decades from now, the kids who watched Finding Nemo will still be watching Finding Nemo with their kids, their grandkids, and their great grandkids. By this time next year Shark Tale will be on a sale rack at Wal-Mart for $5.99, probably as part of a bargain double-pack with Ice Age. Which type of film do you think DreamWorks should have chosen to make?