Coming off the heels of their own groundbreaking "Shrek
" and "Shrek 2
"not to mention Pixar and Disney's glorious 2003 underwater feature, "Finding Nemo
"Dreamworks' animation unit hits a pothole with "Shark Tale," a stale comedy that teaches some questionable lessons and concerns themes decidedly inappropriate for younger audiences. While there is no lack of color and talent behind directors Bibo Bergeron and Vicky Jenson's (2001's "Shrek
") computer-generated images, it is at the mercy of a paperweight story that relies so heavily on today's pop culture and slang that it won't have any longevity in the years to come. Who, really, wants to see animated versions of artists Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott singing a distaff cover of "Car Wash," or hear rapper Ludacris on the soundtrack crooning about gold diggers, in their family film?
Set in an underwater approximation of New York City, complete with a Times Square and news anchor Katie Current (Katie Couric), whale washer Oscar (Will Smith) is a small fish living in a very big sea. He is secretly adored by co-worker Angie (Renee Zellweger) even as he dreams of a life of wealth, luxury, and respect. His chance at all of this comes when carnivorous shark Frankie (Michael Imperioli), brother of outcast vegetarian Lenny (Jack Black), dies during an attack on Oscar and he takes the false credit for slaying him. Suddenly, Oscar is living the life of a celebrity and soaking up the advances of money-hungry Lola (Angelina Jolie). He is living a lie, however, and what he will soon come to realize is that true happiness is in being yourself.
"Shark Tale" is jam-packed with in-joke references to other films"Jaws," "The Godfather," "Jerry Maguire," "The Ring
," etc.that will fly over the heads of the young ones in the audience but adults will understand. In this way, and in its bright visual style, the movie is similar to "Shrek
," but that is where the comparisons end. "Shrek
" bursted with imagination, able to entertain all ages without talking down to them and offering valuable morals to go along with its sharp comedic edge. A couple strong lessons are thrown into "Shark Tale"the importance of being oneself, the need for tolerance of all living beings no matter their differencesbut they almost come as an aside to some smarmy subject matter involving greed and lies. It is discouraging, too, to see animated characters in a family-oriented picture, namely stereotypical protagonist Oscar, speaking the language of ebonics, and none-too-subtle side characters who are mob bosses, pimps shorn in bling-bling, manipulative gold diggers, and Reggae-loving potheads.
Meanwhile, the plot meanders from one character and situation to the next without any of them coming into focus until a self-important climax that overstays its welcome. The action scenes are few and far between, and only the seldom comedic moments hold inspiration, such as a lowly shrimp who successfully begs for his life by telling a sob story about his family woes. Directors Bibo Bergeron and Vicky Jenson have also made a fatal mistake in choosing the motor-mouthed Oscar over the sensitive Lenny as its main character. A little of Oscar goes a long way, not helping matters that he makes a lot of bad decisions on his path to salvation. Lenny, as endearingly voiced by Jack Black (2003's "The School of Rock
"), is the more likable figure, his plight of being a shark afraid to "come out" as a vegetarian to his mob boss father, Don Lino (Robert De Niro), slyly standing in for the experiences many go through in coming to terms with their sexual orientation.
Whereas "Finding Nemo
," the previous computer-generated feature set underwater, was alive and energetic and poignantly humane, "Shark Tale" will likely leave viewers cold. Save for the character of Lenny, and the destined romance between Oscar and Angie, which gains a certain charm thanks to Renee Zellweger's (2003's "Cold Mountain
") vibrant line readings, the film is oddly lacking a heart. In its place is misguided material decidedly unsavory for most of its target audience, and a string of inappropriate ethnic and racial stereotypes. The final undoing of "Shark Tale," a motion picture that isn't so much a disgrace as it is terminally bland, is its preference for materialism and flash-in-the-pan pop culture asides over inventive storytelling and positive values. The best animated films are timeless, able to transcend their modern or past influences. "Shark Tale" may reach its expiration date before the year is over.