Drawn That Way: Shark Tale
By Kim Hollis
October 5, 2004
So far, DreamWorks' forays into the realm of animation have only been wholly successful when the name Shrek has been attached. That film was original and completely skewered traditional notions of fairy tales. Beyond that, the studio's adventures with CGI have oddly mirrored Pixar's projects. At one time, Antz and A Bug's Life were competing projects and now, Shark Tale is suspiciously set in the same oceanic world of 2003's amazing Finding Nemo. Unfortunately, comparisons between the two companies' products are inevitable and in the end, DreamWorks is the one that comes up short.
Although Shark Tale is truly only similar to Finding Nemo in that it is set amongst fish and sharks in the ocean, that's enough to make it feel just ever so derivative. Though the colors and characters are vibrant and fun, they can't help but fall short of the glorious coral reef world that Finding Nemo so brilliantly created.
The basic premise behind the story is a fish tale of epic proportions. Oscar (Will Smith) is a tiny little fish who considers himself to be a nobody. He aspires to rise to great heights, though, with the dream that he might rise to the top of the reef someday. For now, he feels stuck in a dead-end job at the local whale wash, despite the fact that he's surrounded by a number of eclectic and energetic friends.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the ocean, a shark godfather is hoping to turn over the family business to his sons. Don Lino (Robert De Niro) is the prototypical mob boss, tough as nails and mean as can be. His sons are a study in opposites. Frankie (The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli) is all about the gruff muscle, while the brains - such as they are - seem to have gone to vegetarian shark Lenny (Jack Black). Needless to say, Lenny is a great disappointment both to his father and his own kind.
The two singular worlds of Oscar and Lenny collide with massive force when Lenny and Frankie encounter the little fish in the midst of a bit of punishment from his boss's henchmen. Frankie challenges his brother to eat the little dude, which of course Lenny just can't bring himself to do. In the end, as Oscar tries to escape, Frankie is bashed on the head by an anchor and killed. This event proves to be incredibly fortuitous for the tiny Oscar - he takes credit for the kill and becomes known as the Sharkslayer. Not only is Oscar a hero to his peers, he turns into quite the celebrity. Naturally, as the word about his feat spreads, the sharks get wind of the fact that Oscar is the guy who's capable of destroying their kind. Nothing good can come of that, either.
In essence, what we really have here is a retelling of The Brave Little Tailor in a Finding Nemo environment. And that would be perfectly acceptable if the movie was consistently entertaining. Sadly, it just doesn't deliver on that promise.
Looking at the positives, though, the animation is eye-catching and state-of-the-art. For this film, the creators took the approach that they would make the characters closely resemble the people who provide their voices. So for Oscar, the fish looks like Will Smith. We have a Martin Scorsese fish, an Angelina Jolie fish and a Renee Zellweger fish. There's a couple of funny gags that come up as a result, too.
Additionally, some of the supporting cast are pretty amusing. In particular, Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley as the rastafarian jellyfish Bernie and Ernie are cleverly rendered and get the lion's share of the best lines. The unfortunate reality, though, is that the bulk of these were in trailers and the commercials, so there were no surprises at all in that regard.
In the end, those are really the only high points of the film. While the voice cast does a good job with their various characters, the fact that each one is based on such a famous person is distracting. Additionally, the script relies all too much on Will Smith being in hyper, over-the-top mode.
Another huge problem with the film is that it just skews too old for its target audience. Obviously, the commercials and trailers were trying to draw youngsters to the film, but there are numerous scary, confusing and overly mature situations that just don't work for kids. In my particular screening, one child was so bored and confused that the family had to leave. And while you frequently see people lingering for the end credits of stuff like Shrek and Monsters, Inc., the people attending the film couldn't wait to get out of the auditorium. Shark Tale might be appropriate for kids seven and older, but if they're much younger than that, there's too much mafia and not enough sparkle to keep their attention.
And that comment leads to another detriment of the movie. The Columbus Citizens Foundation of New York condemned the film for using defamatory ethnic stereotyping against Italian Americans. Normally, I wouldn't think that much about such a claim, but in the case of Shark Tale, I think they might have a point. All of the sharks have Italian names and are certainly voiced by Italian actors - with the exception of good guy Jack Black. For stuff like The Sopranos, Goodfellas, or The Godfather franchise, the adult audience comprehends that they're watching a story about a very distinct subset of a culture. Shark Tale, on the other hand, is the first introduction a child is likely to have to Italian society in general.
The sad reality is that Shark Tale is a well-intended but heavily flawed film that doesn't have any real appeal to any age. It's not unbearable by any means; it's just very, very average, with nothing special to recommend it.