Shark Tale

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/09/05 15:57:01

"Whaddya know, it's better than you've heard!"
3 stars (Just Average)

“Shark Tale” does not offer us anything new, really, and I don’t just mean in the realm of “gee, that sounds like a limp ‘Finding Nemo’ ripoff.” (Surprisingly, the film has very little in common with Pixar’s gem, although comparisons are inevitable - more on that later.) No, I mean the plot in general, which follows a fast-talking hero who gets in over his head with a small lie that blows up into a big lie, which will undoubtedly end with the hero having to admit the truth to the world, learned lessons following.

It feels on the surface to be a by-the-numbers kiddie flick, which it kinda is, really. But it has enough goodies going for it that I left the movie smiling, having thoroughly enjoyed the good enough to ignore the not-so-good. For starters, it’s actually quite funny. Not the lame puns (“you da fish!” one child limply exclaims, to our collective chagrin) or the weak pop culture references that will cause this movie to age too quickly (the jokes regarding, say, “Jaws” work; the forced hip-hop slang and remade disco tunes don’t), but the moments of wonderful lunacy, like the repeat appearances of a homeless crab named Crazy Joe, who likes puppets. The funniest moments here, in fact, come not from the leading characters or the main story, but from the secondary creatures, an assortment of dimwits and weirdos who pop in just long enough to get a chuckle in.

What sold me on the film, however, wasn’t the comedy, but the heart. “Shark Tale” has two main messages to be found beyond its obvious be-true-to-yourself number. To get to these, though, let’s peek at the plot first.

The film is a CGI cartoon in which the coral reef is a buzzing metropolis; slickster Oscar (voiced by Will Smith) works at the neighborhood whale wash, although he’s always dreaming of doing more, or being “a somebody.” Meanwhile, in a gangster parody that’s sharper than it sounds, the shark godfather (Robert De Niro) laments that his younger son Lenny (Jack Black) is a vegetarian, of all things. Long story short, Lenny’s brother is killed by an anchor; Oscar is accidentally credited for the slaying; Oscar becomes famous; Oscar and Lenny become friends, hatching a plan to fake Lenny’s death, thus allowing Oscar to keep his tough guy rep and Lenny to escape a family that wants to turn him into a killer.

Everything unfolds just about as expected, but let’s go back to those two main messages. One: It’s OK to live the humble life. Oscar recalls how proud he was of his father, who worked at the whale wash his entire life - until other kids made fun of him for his dad’s lowly job. As Oscar gains and loses fame and fortune, maybe he’ll learn that common, blue collar work is no cause for shame. In a world that tends to hype celebrity and making it big, marking financial status as the only test of one’s worth, it’s refreshingly wonderful to see a story aimed at kids that tells them that happiness, not money, is what’s really important.

Two: It’s OK to be different. Lenny’s predicament is as thinly veiled as your average “Star Trek” episode. Anyone paying half-attention to the film will realize that Lenny is gay. He worries about his family accepting him. He “outs” himself to Oscar. He fears how being different will make life hard for him. And yet, not matter how swishy Lenny gets, the film refuses to poke fun. This is a movie entirely on Lenny’s side, and why not? Maybe this movie will sow the seeds of acceptance in its young audience, not just for homosexuality, but for anyone who may not be exactly like you. Welcome differences, the film teaches, even if the kids watching don’t realize they’re being taught.

That said, let’s now go back to “Finding Nemo.” It’s impossible to watch “Shark Tale” without thinking of last year’s animated marvel. I suppose I would find the animation in “Shark Tale” to be impressive, instead of just fine, had I not been wowed by the dazzling visuals of Nemo; this new film feels muted and wholly uninterested in the undersea world.

It’s a choice in styles. “Nemo” found the time to slow down and thrill to the gorgeous scenery. In “Shark Tale,” on the other hand, the filmmakers here are merely using the sea as just another setting, some interchangable place picked just for fun. This is a story that could have been moved to the African jungle and, with just a few species changes, remained relatively the same thing.

But above all, there’s nothing in the animation in “Shark Tale” that awes. (A few shots dazzle, but not as many as one would hope.) The comparisons are similar to those between Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and DreamWorks’ “Antz.” The DreamWorks efforts strain to paste human faces onto animal bodies, resulting in something off-putting (picture Martin Scorsese’s mug on a blowfish, and that’s one “Shark Tale” character entirely); add to this the human characters in DreamWorks’ “Shrek” and you realize that this is a studio that seems afraid to use CGI to create cartoons. They’re pushing for realism where none is needed - these are cartoons, after all - and in doing so, they’re limiting their visual imagination. What this movie needs is eye-popping fantasy; what we get is a typical adventure-comedy, with fish.

That said, it’s still a charming, funny, and refreshing typical adventure-comedy, with fish. The time spent unimpressed by the animation is filled with giggles, and the statements the film manages to include makes for something unexpectely sweet. I went into “Shark Tale” expecting a low-rent “Nemo” wannabe; I left it understanding it to be a low-rent “Nemo” wannabe that works.

Oh, and my four-year-old daughter absolutely adored it, which it the whole point, right?

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