The Sharks are gonna have their way, Tonight

Sunday, 24 October 2004 — 10:37pm | Animation, Film, Full reviews

I was going to say a few words of praise for an absolutely phenomenal gangster movie involving sharks, but most of you are already well aware of my opinions concerning West Side Story.

Instead, I’m stuck talking about Shark Tale, which cannot be faulted for not being a finger-snapping rhapsody of forbidden love and close-quarters switchblade combat – few movies are – but can hardly merit a strong recommendation of any sort, either. I’ll say this much: it exceeded my expectations, which were not all that high to begin with. Judging by Antz and the two Shrek films, PDI and DreamWorks Animation appear to be exercising a repeated application of a specific marketing formula: a) sell your film to the mainstream audiences who like loud, obnoxious fart-joke comedies so they can pay their ten bucks and laugh in unison at the exact same jokes that everyone already saw in the teaser trailer, and b) pull the rug out from under the snobby critical types who write for such pretentious rags as The Chicago Sun-Times and Nick’s Café Canadien by delivering some semblance of a genuinely compelling product.

As far as the second part is concerned, they kind of did, and they kind of didn’t.

By now, nobody should doubt that the production designers and animators over at Pacific Data Images know how to paint a pretty picture. At first glance, Shark Tale looks tacky. Sit through 90 minutes of it, though, and the tackiness sinks in as a cohesive aesthetic that fits the tone and character of the piece. Observe the first shot in the movie: the worm that wiggles and squiggles about as it is cast as bait into the open sea has the worrisome sort of bulging eyes that reflect the precise absurdity of its predicament – especially when a docile shark comes along and sets it free.

Later on, said shark (Lenny, voiced by Jack Black) paints himself a light turquoise and dresses up as a dolphin. One scene features a derby of galloping seahorses where the favourite is, of course, Seabiscuit. The reef on the ocean floor is an aquatic Times Square, complete with a Coca-Cola billboard in a half-joking promotion on the scale of the giant Mountain Dew can in Antz. In many ways, Shark Tale is your average inner-city Manhattan movie that just happens to deliver its visual narrative in the environment of a marine ecology.

That’s where the film’s problems begin: it tries so hard to be oh-so-trendy in that I-love-NY way that it gets swallowed up in the whirlpool of its overplayed pop-cultural consciousness. Not the least of its expressions of that consciousness is in the way its characters are built around the actors, a celebration of a negative trend in the film industry today.

Yes, one has to admire how Lola, the seductive, dusky fish who speaks in a velvet contralto and lets her fins droop around her face like a wind-swept curtain of wavy long hair, is the spitting image of Angelina Jolie (who provides her voice), right down to the all-too-appropriate trademark fish-lips. The problem is when that becomes the be-all and end-all of the movie – compounded by the fact that one of your high-profile voice actors, the one who plays your main character, Oscar, is Will Smith. And if I, Robot were I, Any Indication, the last guy in the world you want Will Smith to play is himself.

As a pessimist would rightly guess, Will Smith walking onscreen – vaguely disguised as a fish designed to look and act like him – is exactly what happens in this movie. And from that point on, it’s all downstream.

That’s not to say Shark Tale elicits all groans and no laughs. It fulfils its minimum academic requirement of three Titanic jokes. It makes reference to a whole bevy of other films, most of which are in some way related to its cast, like they got a good laugh out of mocking the clichés that have developed out of their own filmographies.

Note my choice of words there. It doesn’t spoof other movies, it makes reference to them. There’s a difference. References are trivial allusions that amuse in the act of being identified – like Rex chasing the toy car as seen in the rear-view mirror in Toy Story 2‘s second-long poke at Jurassic Park. References have their limits, in that you can’t build an entire movie around them, like Shark Tale tries to do with The Godfather. There are better ways to do The Godfather with sharks – or even Jaws, for that matter, as when it is performed by bunnies.

On a more positive note, though: sharks humming the theme from Jaws, I’ll admit, is pretty darn funny. Shark Tale has these bright spots, and Will Smith aside, it doesn’t annoy so much as it impresses in very limited spurts. It’s a temporary pleasure, dispensible after its hour-and-a-half is up, and not quite so bad that you feel dirty for having been reeled in by its thundering pace like some novels I know.

Wait for the DVD. Being from a digital source and all, I’m sure the transfer quality will be excellent. Rent it when you’ve caught up on any theatrical necessities you may have missed – Garden State and the like. I remain almost disappointed that the animation didn’t stink, or I could have used a quotable closing remark like “Shark Tale bites.”

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