© 2004 Ray Wong
It’s inevitable that Dreamwork’s SHARK TALE would be compared to last year’s FINDING NEMO by their archrival Pixar. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the only resemblance between the two films is that they’re both animated features with fish in them.
Oscar (Smith) is a smalltime fish that dreams of fame and fortune. He’s stuck in a lowly janitorial job at a Whale Wash; he’s unhappy even though he has many friends, including the lovely Angie (Zellweger). She has a secret crush on Oscar but he is blind to her feelings.
When Oscar’s puffer fish boss Sykes (Scorsese) demands him to pay back his overextension, Angie helps him out with her grandmother’s pearl. However, Oscar uses the money to bet on a (sea)horse race and loses it all. Sykes, whose boss is the Godfather shark Don Lino (De Niro), asks his minions to eliminate Oscar.
Meanwhile, Don Lino’s son Lenny (Black) is a soft-hearted vegetarian, thus a disgrace to his family. While out trying to prove his worthiness, Lenny interrupts Oscar’s “termination.” Unfortunately, Lenny’s brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli) gets killed in an accident. The disgrace and guilt prompt Lenny to leave his mobster family.
Oscar lies to the townsfolk that he’s killed Frankie, and he helps Lenny by pretending to have slain him in a public display. Soon Oscar is lauded as the shark slayer, and fame and fortune follow. Angie finds out the truth and urges Oscar to come clean. Instead, Oscar sinks deeper into the trap of his lies. In the process, Oscar loses himself, and he loses Angie. When Din Lino threatens to kill him to avenge his sons’ deaths, Oscar must tell the truth.
Again, it’s hard not to compare this to FINDING NEMO or Dreamwork’s own SHREK. The CGI animation is good, but not quite up to snuff, surprisingly having a hand-drawn feel to it. The characters are fluid and the colors vibrant. However, some scenes are too fuzzy and the general feel is that it’s too busy and frantic. The fishy characters look remarkably like the actors who voice them – it’s a little disconcerting, for example, to see Martin Scorsese’s head on a puffer fish. Some characters verge on being offensive stereotypes (e.g. Sykes’ two jellyfish minions).
Smith is good as Oscar’s voice, and his likeable mannerism shows through the character as well. I do sense a little self-indulgence in the performance, but his spirited reading serves the character well. Scorsese and De Niro play themselves to great effect, spoofing their own public personas. Zellweger is a knockout as the kind but spunky Angie. Her expressive voice gives the character extra dimensions. Black is really funny as Lenny. Jolie is interesting, if not a little predictable, as the gold-digging goldfish Lola.
In a way, SHARK TALE really is not a tale about fish. It’s basically a spoof of gangster and “hood” stories with characters played by fish. It’s an interesting take. The script has its moments of hilarity. The film is filled brim-to-brim with pop culture references, and the soundtrack is Rap and Hip Hop heavy. I’m surprised by how adult some of the materials are: race track gambling, mob killing, fame, money, lust, etc. Some dialogue is borderline saucy. There’s an undeniable gay undertone in Lenny’s character and subplot. In comparison, FINDING NEMO has a much purer storytelling. It’s not to say SHARK TALE is not suitable for children, but I think a lot of the jokes and messages would be lost on the young ones.
That said, the main plot of the story is rather old-fashioned and lacking in imagination: It’s about being “true to yourself and knowing who you are.” However, the film’s too busy, with too many characters and too many one-liners. It takes me a while to get used to the idea of fish having “hood” talks, singing and dancing Hip Hop and RAP, living in city dwellings with stereos and TVs, and dressing like gangsters or thuds. I’m particularly offended by the nonchalant attitude toward graffiti vandalism, as if it’s a cool thing for kids to do. At times I feel that the setting is ill-suited for the story. It simply feels odd. In comparison, the pop culture references in SHREK work much smoothly with better believability. I think it’d have been a better tale had they used human characters, or stuck to underwater realism.
Stars: Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Renée Zellweger, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese
Directors: Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman
Writers: Rob Letterman, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift, Michael J. Wilson
MPAA Rating: PG for mild language and crude humor
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Animation – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total Score – 6.8 out of 10