Fishy Fame Fixation
Once upon a time, animated films were voiced by relatively anonymous talents whose great work made many of their characters immortal. Remember Pat Carroll as the voice of Ursula in The Little Mermaid? How about Phil Harris as Baloo in The Jungle Book? Betty Lou Gerson as 101 Dalmatians' Cruella De Vil? While fellow movie critic Michael Dequina and I were discussing Shark Tale, he brought up this point to illustrate the pitiable direction big studio animation has taken -- in the past, voice talents helped support a solid movie. Sadly, Shark Tale illustrates today's reality: celebrity voices are the reason for a movie's existence.
We've arrived at this place slowly but surely, almost willingly. Celebrity voices grew more and more popular in the '90s, and Pixar gave us high standards for this practice with their Toy Story movies in particular. But in most of these movies, famous actors and actresses lent their voices to actual characters. With Shark Tale, we've reached the inevitable point where celebrities use their voices in animated movies to play themselves.
If there's any reason for Shark Tale's existence other than to give celebs a chance to play around as animated sea creatures, I don't see it. This is a movie without a soul, a slick enterprise forged by committees applying marketing strategies in rooms with monitor banks filtering in cable television as the only evidence of the human world. It is pop culture run amok, an explosion of references without structure, logic, or comedic timing. It's like the Josie and the Pussycats movie, but without the satire.
This movie offers a perfunctory, moralizing story about finding acceptance, which is literally and figuratively watered down and told without creative effort. For instance, when Angelina Jolie's villainess arrives, she plainly states she's superficial, as if to admit that she's nothing more than a plot device without actually having to act it out. That the story deals with the substanceless maintenance of fame is an irony totally and wastefully lost on the filmmakers. Instead, the movie's main focus is to distract its audience for as long as it can with bright colors (for the kids) and celebrity worship (for the adults). The humor is aimed at the parents -- children aren't going to get the numerous movie references and scenes poking fun at Times Square -- while the lukewarm story elements can only be entertaining to the tots (the movie's weak resolution is so disingenuous it's embarrassing). Meanwhile, the underwater setting seems almost a throwaway, lending nothing to the project except more opportunities to make offhanded reference jokes (Coral Cola, Kelpy Kreme, etc.).
What's left to gawk at is a sickening celebration of the shallowness of fame. In our culture, famous people are given props for showing off, fascinating an audience whose fixations last only as long as the stars maintain proper control of their images. And those images are controlled too well here, feeding those fixations, giving viewers little of what they wouldn't already expect. It's effective to the point where Will Smith, the main star of the show, practically does a parody of his own persona -- it's like listening to Smith doing a Smith impersonation. There's also Robert De Niro, who's on auto-pilot playing an Italian mob boss shark. The other performances range from decent (Renée Zellweger adds some spunk to her fish; Jack Black's at least trying to do a funny voice) to pathetic (the humor for Martin Scorsese's fish comes mostly from the notion that it's funny to know who happens to be saying these stupid lines).
In each case, the stars get a bit of PR, which may be the only thing with any lasting effect in the end. Shark Tale reminds me of a piece I ran into on a cable network (probably E!) where Arnold Schwarzenegger was expressing his joy at how much his likeness was reproduced in a Terminator video game. So much work went into the detail of capturing his face alone; never mind if the game turned out to be any good. And that's all that seemed to matter to Arnold at the time -- once his face shows up in the game, he'll have had his fun, gotten his PR, and moved on.
It's the same case here, where the actors will have fun with their fish likenesses and move on. I like the actors, really, and I don't blame them for having this kind of fun, but Shark Tale strikes me as something much too indulgent and pandering. Given a cookie-cutter plot, haphazard referencing, and no commitment to making its world consistent or convincing, the movie runs on famous talent playing it safe as its only real source of fuel and reason for being. If that's the case, why should we be interested at all? Our memory of it, and our children's memory of it, will be as fleeting as fame itself.
(Released by DreamWorks and rated "PG" for some mild language and crude humor.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.