Dreamworks and Disney and Warner Brothers and Pixar, as animation studios, all have sought to find their own voice in an industry only recently beginning to be taken as seriously as the work deserves. Obviously, of these two groups, Disney and Warner are the hand-drawn titans, and Pixar and Dreamworks are the computer animated sovereigns.
Shark Tale is Dreamworks’ latest entry to its spotty but prolific short history. You might think, oh, it’s just another Finding Nemo, because it’s about fish. The good news for Dreamworks is that short of being set in a reef, the similarities between Oscar’s and Marlin’s stories are nil. The good news for Pixar is that they are in no danger of being overcome by Dreamworks’ quality. I hate to deride any work in this genre – it is a long, painful labor of love over many years, and the results can be dismissed in an instant. It always starts with the writing, and there is where Dreamworks fails its hard working animators.
Oscar (voiced by Will Smith) is a high-dreaming, but not hard-working, fish who happens to get entangled in the life of a powerfully connected vegetarian shark (an unrecognizable Jack Black). The reef is a punny, barnacled New York City, its transmogrification more like Shrek’s faux Hollywood than Osmosis Jone’s pun-centered alternate universe. While you’re waiting for something funny to come out of the action or dialogue, you can enjoy funny visual gags. The fish are highly anthropomorphized, sass-talking creatures with a penchant for the latest commercial successes. The main story is amusing enough, but nothing to write home about.
The better treats are the supporting characters and the throwaway visual jokes. I don’t mean “Gup” as a pun for the Gap. I laughed harder at an octopus pouring tea – underwater, with all that implies – than at any of the jokes they told me to laugh at. I felt pretty much the same as in the Shrek sequel – like I was being told “this is funny” and that I was just supposed to believe it. However, anything having to do with the inherent difficulties of our human lives being conducted underwater (tea, paint, fire hydrants) was funny. Supporting characters Leno (Robert DeNiro) and Sykes (Martin Scorcese) were great. These actors were really having fun, not clocking a paycheck. Don’t get me wrong, I like Smith and Black, but these dynamic performers were trapped by their roles (as were the dames), whereas Deniro and Scorcese were liberated by them.
The voice casting overall was great. Renee Zellweger sounds like a girl next door and Angelina Jolie sounds like a social climbing vamp. Go figure. The jellyfish thugs assayed by Doug E. Doug and, yes, Ziggy freaking Marley) were as cool to look at as to listen to bickering.
This Shark Tale, however, stripped to the bone, is like 100 other stories just like it, with the corporate stench of “like this or else” that has permeated Dreamworks’ animation since after Prince of Egypt. I enjoyed it on a simple level, my companion loved it, and it was a diverting little movie. It’s no Finding Nemo, with its tumbling, biology-derived humor, genuine characterizations, and mature-yet-accessible-to-kids writing. Shark Tale has hip hop and funk numbers, with the older fish dancing as painfully fake as their real life bodies would, crass commercialism, and forgettable kid characters in a movie supposedly written for them. Nemo was a cool, gutsy kid with resources and real child anxieties, vulnerability, and heroism. It’s not fair to compare, but it can’t be helped, what with the fish and all. The animation is good, the performances are good, but it’s between Nemo and this that we can easily draw the distinction between movie and classic. It’s mostly worth seeing, but it’s disposable.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 10/1/04
Time in minutes 90
Director Rob Letterman, Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson