Written by Michael J. Wilsonand Rob Letterman
Featuring the voices of Will Smith, Jack Black, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Renee Zellweger and Angelina Jolie
A fish sandwiched between last year's witty Pixar-produced Finding Nemo and Paramount's SpongeBob SquarePants coming later this fall, DreamWorks' Shark Tale is a fast-paced, star-studded, joke-stuffed piece of fast-food studio product. Bouncing from one movie reference to another, it strives for the same of smart-alecky jauntiness as the Shrek movies, also produced by DreamWorks.
Though Shark Tale will make waves at the multiplexes and move a lot of plastic toys at Burger King, the movie lacks real heart. It feels like a cold-blooded, always moving, profit-making machine.
The financial potential in the animation field these days is huge: Finding Nemo ($340-million U.S.), and Shrek 2 ($467-million) are two of the biggest money-making movies of all time. The kids in the malls, market-tested from their Nikes to their Roots backpacks, are driving the movie industry. Parents, though, are still paying for the tickets.
The result is the two-pronged formula: Antic and cute enough for the children, with enough grownup jokes to keep the adults involved. Using a veteran team of directors and animators with experience on Ice Age, The Road to El Dorado and Shrek, and a cross-generational soundtrack (from Eminem's D-12 to the Four Tops), Shark Tale is calculated to the ends of its characters' pointy teeth.
The first wince comes with DreamWorks' decision to take product placement to new depths by featuring a giant soft-drink ad in the middle of an ocean-bottom Times Square. (And underwater soft drinks are used for what?) There, on the giant screen, Katie Current (Katie Couric in North America, with a substitute Australian broadcaster Down Under) broadcasts the latest news of terrors of the deep.
The buzz of visual familiarity can't disguise Shark Tale's main problem, the lack of story -- or, more precisely, the presence of a story that is an assemblage of tired ideas. The complaint from Italian-American groups about the film -- that it characterizes Italians as gangsters -- is one indication of the reflexively derivative nature of the project. (The pair of sadistic Rastafarian jellyfish henchmen played by Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug somehow slipped by the anti-Jamaican-defamation activists.)
The question is not only, why did DreamWorks think offensive ethnic stereotypes were worth the risk, but also, why did it imagine little boys and girls would be amused by Godfather references from 30 years ago?
In the obviously capitalist feeding frenzy that characterizes life on the reef, the sharks are the Mafia. De Niro is Don Lino, the godfather who has two sons, the dumb and violent Frankie (Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos) and the embarrassingly soft and sweet Lenny (the voice of Jack Black). In an idea familiar from Finding Nemo, Lenny is a vegetarian shark.
Meanwhile, at the local "whale wash" -- a car wash for whales -- Oscar (Will Smith) a large-eared, jive-talking fish with a bad habit of running up gambling debts on the sea horses, plies his trade. He is loved by the cashier Angie (Renée Zellweger) and bullied by the manager, a bushy-browed puffer fish, Sykes (Martin Scorsese), who in turn works for Don Lino.
Oscar is on the verge of "sleeping with the fishes -- the dead ones," when he has a lucky accident: In a plot device previously employed by The Wizard of Oz, Oscar wins fame by being around when Frankie the shark is accidentally killed by a falling object. Suddenly, he is Oscar the Shark Slayer, reaping the booty and the beauty named Lola (Angelina Jolie) that flow to him. Like most of the characters here, Lola is actually more repulsive than cute: Jolie without her body or nose, red hair and even fatter lips, effectively reverses the effect she has in human form.
While Oscar spins off lines from Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men and Gladiator, the sharks swim around the wreck of the Titanic, and Robert De Niro parodies himself and Marlon Brando, one thing becomes clear: This should be one hilarious movie for eight-year-olds with a Variety subscription and a working knowledge of seventies cinema.
There are reasons, based on studio strategies, that Shark Tale has too many characters and too little story. One of DreamWorks' founders, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who presented early selections from the film at Cannes last May, described with pride how, for the first time, it was possible to use improvisation in animated movies. Over a two-year period, the array of stars came in and out of the studio when their schedules permitted, read lines and made others up, and the animators and writers constructed the tale around their personalities and reputations.
Traditional animation was a long, painstaking process. By using computers, animators can telescope time and planning to create something new: the star-driven throwaway animated feature.