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Shark Tale

“Get this, it’s computer animated and underwater! The main characters are fish, and…and sharks! It’s a classic story of one fish learning to stand on his own two, uh…fins, and triumphing over adversity!”

No it’s not Finding Nemo, but you knew that. It’s Shark Tale, the latest animated flick out of the Dreamworks rendering machine. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the two, but I’ll try to hold off for a while.

Shark Tale takes place in reef version of Manhattan, complete with coral skyscrapers, billboards, spray-paint wielding guppies, and a shark mafia prowling the outskirts of town. The shark Godfather Don Lino (Robert DeNiro, complete with mole) despairs of his sensitive son Lenny (Jack Black) ever becoming a true shark and embracing the killer within. Oscar, a lowly reef fish working at the whale wash (Will Smith) is desperate to be a “somebody,” and gets himself into debt ($5000 clams! Yes, clams…isn’t that clever?) with the mob in the attempt.

Through a mildly interesting series of events, Oscar and Lenny’s paths cross when Lenny’s brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli) is beaned by an anchor and killed. Oscar takes credit for the death of Frankie and is instantly granted celebrity status by the reef community as The Shark Slayer. Hilarity ensues.

It’s basically “The Brave Little Tailor” with a whole bunch of pop-culture references thrown in.

Shark Tale’s cast reads like a Hollywood dream team; DeNiro, Black, Smith, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger, Marty Scorcese for Pete’s sake! And yet none of these talented, bankable performers bring anything other than themselves to the table. With the exception of Jack Black, who’s nebbishy Lenny diverges from his usual manic obnoxia, these mostly Oscar-nominated/winning actors play dumbed-down versions of themselves.

Funny? Yes. Martin Scorsese stands out as Sykes, whale wash owner/mob toady. Sykes is a blowfish who tends to puff up under emotional duress and comes equipped with the director's signature bushy eyebrows. DeNiro also manages to sound genuine when grieving for his sons, and his character, though stereotypical, has actual depth. Everyone else just sounds like they’re phoning it in.

Angelina Jolie and Rene Zellweger play two cookie cutter love interests, and I was more impressed with their sparkly scales than I was by their characters, though I think I can blame the writers for that.

That brings me to the writers. Now I know that reference humor sells, and on first viewing this is a very funny movie, but it won’t hold up. In a few years, when memories of today’s pop-culture are a little hazier, a lot of this movie just won’t be funny. With the exception of some classic references (The Godfather, MC Hammer) and a few really clever gags…one of them involving sushi that kicked my ass, there isn’t anything in this movie that will earn a place in my DVD collection.

This is where I start talkin’ Nemo.

Finding Nemo was really funny. I had seagulls saying “Mine?” posted all over my desk at work, and quotes from Dora and that neat little French tank cleaning crab were muttered all over the household. But what made Nemo great was the heart and beauty of the story, and the depth of the characters. The humor sprang naturally from the situations they were in, and their natural reactions to it. Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres don’t have near the drawing power of Will Smith or Angelina Jolie, but they created (along with Pixar’s amazing writers and animators) real characters that the audience cared about and identified with.

Shark Tale has none of this. It’s a basic low stakes, sitcom plot, with a whitewash of cheap jokes and stock characters. The kids will love it, but it won’t have resonance with them. It won’t offer an opportunity for kids to think, or feel, or grow, and they won’t take away any life lessons. It’s entertainment, but it’s no classic.


Marin Carpenter

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