Friday, November 5, 2004

Shark Tale / ** (2004)

Ocean divers see only what their eyes permit when they descend into the deep corners of the sea, but animators come equipped with the privilege of imagination which allows them to perceive such things in both a brighter and more amusing framework. Innocent schools of fish can become civilized societies, while vibrant coral reefs can become big urban habitats. The fact that the floodgates have opened thanks to computer animation now allows these images to be pure realities - but just as innovation can breed creativity, so can it too breed repetition. Disney/Pixar's "Finding Nemo," released last year to immense commercial success, was the first computer-generated endeavor that gave personality and narrative flair to deep-sea creatures, and now we have "Shark Tale," in which the filmmakers fill the screen with the same familiar backdrops and characterizations that seem to have grown all too common by animation standards. If not for the fact that the visuals remain so colorful and distinctive, in fact, one would almost accuse the studio, Dreamworks, of being too predictable a competitor.

On the other hand, the studio doesn't insist on making a direct carbon copy, either - upping the ante a bit, they fill "Shark Tale" with a lot more pop culture references than what occupied the bulk of "Nemo." It's also a lot more urban than the latter, directed in part by the fact that its characters feel like they've been lifted from a UPN sitcom instead of an innocent child's storybook (and anyone who doubts that the main character is purposely modeled after Will Smith's own teen persona from the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" years is obviously not looking at the celluloid clearly). Most would argue that this is the exact approach one should utilize when a movie may or may not tread so obvious a line of familiarity (especially if it were being released in the shadow of a film as big as "Nemo"), but somehow the result in "Shark Tale" isn't nearly as appealing as it should be. The ambition is admirable, some of the characters likable; but the overall tone of the film lacks accessibility, and much of the humor is so dry that even those who might get the jokes are not likely to find them very funny.

Smith's character, the quick-witted and smooth-talking Oscar, is the film's narrative center, an ambitious little creature who works days at the local "Whale Wash" (modeled, of course, after the Car Wash) and then dreams of wealth and power (and all the perks that come with it, like fancy penthouse apartments and stuff) by night. Those dreams would no doubt be a front-burner project, of course, if not for the fact that he owes hordes of cash to his boss Sykes (Martin Scorsese), who in turn owns quite a steep payment to Don Lino (Robert De Niro), the head of a shark mafia who threatens to take Lino's Whale Wash business and dismantle it if he doesn't fork over what he owes. Oscar, of course, is also the kind of fish who thrives at potential get-rich-quick schemes, but when he blows a major stash over an ill-fated sea-horse race, it puts him in a very compromising situation.

Enter Lenny (Jack Black), a Great White who, much to the displeasure of his father Don Lino, is a vegetarian. Oscar's latest moment of chaos comes when Lenny's brother is accidentally killed by an anchor, and the fish unwittingly takes credit for it. Though the lie lifts his popularity in the reef and allows him to be the kind of wealthy and power individual he has always dreamed about, it does nothing to change the fact that he has a family of angry Great Whites looking for him to exact their revenge. Lenny, who himself feels a twinge of guilt regarding his brother's demise, decides to team up with Oscar so the both of them can solve all of their problems in one fell swoop. Their secretive partnership works in their favor for a time, but how long could it possibly go on, especially when Oscar's closest friend Angie (Renee Zellweger) discovers their secrets? And furthermore, will Oscar catch onto the fact that his best friend actually wants more than a friendship from him before it's too late?

The plot, a seemingly convoluted series of misunderstandings and unlikely partnerships, is fueled much in the same way that the "Shrek" films were - that is, to spoof elements of pop culture over telling a story that may or may not be driven by itself otherwise. The difference, naturally, is that the fairy tales at the center of "Shrek" were styled in a manner that depended on the satire; in "Shark Tale," what you actually get is storytelling in which all the in-jokes seem tacked on just for the sake of saying something witty. That, at least, means the movie has a broader audience appeal than the general animated film (and a lot of the references to films like "The Godfather" certainly back up that notion). Unfortunately, any kind of movie who needs to reach so far back in time to spoof something so common is obviously not thinking with the times.

Children, as expected, will be dazzled by the colorful characters and all the neat little visual gimmicks that the film sets out to provide (even I can admit that a sequence involving a reef that resembles Times Square is spectacular in both scope and sight). But who is this movie for? Them? Us? Everyone? No one? Good question. The brains at Dreamworks have a solid foundation here that could have taken five or six different directions than what it currently does. Few will find it very amusing. Most will feel obliged to laugh just because it's a cartoon with cute round faces and a bunch of flamboyant characterizations. But this is in no way a match to any of the recent efforts to emerge from the Pixar hard drives. If "Finding Nemo" was a Utopia of deep-sea cartoon adventures, than "Shark Tale" plays as an inferior in need of some serious renovation.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Animated/Comedy (US); 2004; Rated PG for some mild language and crude humor; Running Time: 90 Minutes

Will Smith: Oscar
Robert De Niro: Don Lino
Renée Zellweger: Angie
Angelina Jolie: Lola
Jack Black: Lenny
Martin Scorsese: Sykes

Produced by Bill Damaschke, Janet Healy, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Allison Lyon Segan;Directed by Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson and Rob Letterman;Written by Rob Letterman, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift and Michael J. Wilson

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