Analyze This: Movie Fish Eat Their Young
Shark Tale was obviously spawned deep inside the belly of a Hollywood studio -- in the dark recesses of the marketing department where merchandising and ancillary revenue streams take precedence over everything else.
Saying it lacks originality misses the point since it isn't intended to be novel, just a new arrangement of entertainment and media fixtures. It didn't have to be that way. The seminal Toy Story was one of the best movies of the 1990s. Monsters, Inc. had a clever concept, Finding Nemo successfully tapped a major fairytale artery, and earlier this year, the recycling effort called Shrek 2 bowled audiences over with its sheer moxie. In contrast, the cannibalism of Shark Tale is blasé because it's omnivorous. Real sharks are more discriminating.
The prominence given to a nudgey television reporter named Katie Current (voiced by Today anchor Katie Couric) is emblematic of its triteness. Great white sharks as mobsters might rankle the Italian-American community but the on-screen depictions are more tired than offensive. Lifting the music from Jaws is permissible since director Steven Spielberg co-founded DreamWorks, the studio that made Shark Tale. Resurrecting the theme song and plot elements from the 1976 Richard Pryor comedy Car Wash is okay since it hasn't been overexposed. But riffing on the Godfather theme music and staging a family sit-down is too easy. Likewise the mock product placements -- Kelpy Kreme instead of Krispy Kreme donuts and the GUP instead of GAP -- are unimaginative.
Shark Tale owes its shimmer to Will Smith's vivacious performance and lots of bright colors -- the Rasta jellyfish are among the coolest looking things in the movie, so maybe Jamaicans won't protest the stereotyping. As Oscar, the fish mistaken for a shark-slayer, Smith is a life force. (Depending on what you think of his forays into rap, his career success may or may not lend any legitimacy to the movie's urban, hip-hop theme.) Oscar is a self-described ghetto fish, a tongue-scrubber at the Whale Wash who gets his chance to float upward when he's credited with besting the son of a mob boss (Robert DeNiro), who's fretting because his other son Lenny (Jack Black) is a sensitive vegetarian unwilling to enter the family business of killing.
A surprising dearth of action means kids may tire of the comparatively talky and character-driven film. Aside from a pretend WWF showdown, not very much really happens. Martin Scorsese has an expansive role as Oscar's puffer-fish boss, and while he does a fine job, you wonder whether he was cast because he was the best actor for the role or because of his mob movies.
The three-headed directing committee makes many obvious choices, ensuring their hip-hop and mafia combo can be slurped down easily without giving you a cold headache. Their only daring move is making Lenny implicitly gay. While Oscar wants a better life, he wants out of the closet. The homosexual rights subtext isn't very radical and merely testifies to the fact that, beneath its cheeky, commercialized surface, Shark Tale has a conventional heart. A decent amount of feeling is wrung from Oscar's relationship with a co-worker (Renee Zellweger) who loves him for who he really is. Lenny's search for true love continues, perhaps in a sequel.
Approach Shark Tale like you're a gigantic sperm whale. Sit back with your mouth open and let the plankton float in. It's about as nourishing as the kids' meal from whichever fast-food company bought the merchandising rights.
(Released by DreamWorks and rated "PG" for mild language and crude humor.)