Shark Tale comes from at least some of the people responsible for Shrek, and there may even be a few moments that will remind you of the latter film, and also of Shrek 2 (Shark Tale‘s shrimp, in fact, almost seem lifted directly from the Shrek flicks). However, there’s a gap about 20,000 leagues wide between those movies and this one.
No, Shark Tale is not horrible. It offers some nice animation and design, a not-unappealing theme, a few really good gags, some beguiling supporting characters — and about the flattest lead characters imaginable. The movie might have survived this last quality, but for two things: The filmmakers apparently think that the leads are both interesting and funny, and the film itself lacks the necessary inspiration to make up for the fact that they’re neither.
Shark Tale tries to be Shrek in a Finding Nemo setting, and constantly falls short. The idea is OK without being especially clever. Oscar (voiced by Will Smith) is a lowly whale-wash worker with big ideas and a long-suffering “best friend,” Angie (Renee Zellweger), who can’t get Oscar to realize she loves him. And why would he? Oscar has no real dream, no goal; he simply wants to be a “big shot” and live the good life “at the top of the reef.” Any real sympathy for his character goes right out the window — or would have, had it ever been established in the first place.
The parallel plot about a mild-mannered vegetarian shark, Lenny (Jack Black, one of the few voice performers who doesn’t trade on his established screen presence), works better. Lenny doesn’t fit in with his Cosa Nostra roots and constantly embarrasses his mob-boss father, Don Lino (Robert DeNiro). The two story lines nicely dovetail when Oscar is mistakenly thought to have killed Lenny’s mobster brother, Frankie (Michael Imperioli), making Oscar a hero in his world — and a target for the gangsters. But the setup is tiresome and utterly reliant on the subordinate characters to keep it swimming along.
Lenny only becomes interesting when the film makes it clear that the real issue with him is that he’s a gay son trying to gain his family’s acceptance. This aspect of the film — including a spot-on parody of a “coming out” scene and the image of Lenny in dolphin drag that’s weirdly reminiscent of one of the Village People — really works. And it’s a pretty bold move in a mainstream movie presumably aimed at children. Unfortunately, this bit of bravery is forced to sit gill to fin with the obligatory Will Smith “I’m not gay” bit (does the man have it in his contract that every script has to include a scene where he reminds us of this?) Still, the overall message is admirable, if still not enough to push the story over the top. Truthfully, Lilo and Stitch, which kept its message about redefining family on a subtext level, and only offered code words (characters wanting to destroy Stitch because he’s an “abomination”), was far more persuasive and moving.
Perhaps Shark Tale‘s trouble lies in its all-consuming desire to be another Shrek franchise. The film simply tries too hard, merely duplicating the surface of the Shrek movies. Where the green ogre’s films tap many of their laughs from references to our own world, this finny pretender comes across as a lame retread of the kind of anachronistic humor found in an episode of The Flintstones, combined with shameless promotion that positively screams “Product placement.”
Shrek 2 may reference Starbucks, but it also works the coffee chain into the plot. Shark Tale, however, throws out “Kelpy Kreme” doughnuts, “Coral Cola” and the like, but then does nothing with them — other than to just tout the respective product. And apart from the film’s more-or-less on target Godfather parody, Shark Tale‘s pop-culture references fare no better.
Both Shrek and Shrek 2 took not very distinguished pop tunes and worked them into the films’ very fabric, making those songs seem better than they actually are. Shark Tale, however, takes a more “urbanized” tack (presumably because of the presence of Will Smith), but merely grafts the songs onto the film without adding much of anything in the process (other than a soundtrack album). The use of the tune “Car Wash” is a notably clever exception, providing one of the film’s few successful “big” moments.
Still, there is some fun to be had along the way thanks to DeNiro’s mob boss, and to Peter Falk as an aging (and predictably flatulent) gangster, and, especially, to Martin Scorsese as an opportunistic puffer fish with suspiciously Scorsesian eyebrows.
Go see Shark Tale with limited expectations and you’ll find it OK entertainment with a few truly bright spots. Just don’t go expecting a masterpiece.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke