There is a certain tradition of quality that has become associated with computer-animated family films, mostly thanks to Pixar, which hires talented people, understands the market extremely well, and invariably releases critically acclaimed box-office hits. Not content to let the genre keep its reputation, Dreamworks, which has done well with Shrek and Shrek 2, brings us Shark Tale, an overstuffed, irritating Finding Nemo rip-off with a pathetic laugh ratio and the same old platitudes about “being true to yourself” trying to pass for heart. Perhaps the secret of Pixar’s success is that despite the immensely prominent commercial aspects of their business, they never let their movies become merely product. Shark Tale is precisely that.
Part of Dreamworks’ strategy with their animated films has been casting them in the same way they would big-budget live-action extravaganzas: plenty of names above the title, and characters that reflect or even represent the stars’ personalities. This effort is buried under a cast that features Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black, Robert De Niro, Katie Couric and, I swear to God, Martin Scorsese. I am not sure whether the casting or the screenplay came first, but some of the characters are so peripheral and clearly catered to the actor’s persona that I strongly suspect the former.
Everyone knows what the typical Will Smith character sounds like, and anyone who doesn’t want to listen to it magnified three-fold for an hour and a half should stay far, far away from Shark Tale. He voices Oscar, a lowly fish who works at the “whale wash” and accidentally becomes “Oscar the Shark Slayer” after appearing to have defeated one of the formidable beasts. It’s a cute conceit, but Oscar refuses to shut up, and Smith’s incessant chattering-by-proxy is the epitome of tiresome.
Finding Nemo, for all its flaws, was a stunningly beautiful film, its every frame a work of art. Shark Tale has virtually no visual appeal; it’s murky and confused, refusing to take advantage of the aesthetic potential offered by the undersea settings, choosing instead to anthropomorphize everything into oblivion (more on that later). What’s worse, the character designs are hideous, a truly bizarre meld of fish and human features; Oscar is perhaps the ugliest animated protagonist since Jack Frost. Taken out of context, I’m not even sure I’d know he was a fish.
One of my problems with Nemo was the way it placed a human world underwater instead of actually creating an underwater world. Having seen Shark Tale, I am tempted to take that criticism back and eat it. This is just ridiculous; all it would take to have people instead of fish here is for an intern to go through the screenplay and change a few words. At times, I forgot that the characters were presumably submerged in water; there are dance parties, table negotiations with mobsters, penthouse apartments, and (sea)horse racetracks except, you know, underwater. This is not creativity.
But the killer is that Shark Tale is so often just not funny. The pop culture allusions fly fast and furious, Katie Couric stars as fish newsanchor Katie Current, and there is a pair of Rastafarian jellyfish, but there is precious little that crosses beyond the most rudimentary level of referential humor. The only truly inspired choice here was casting the manic Martin Scorsese as a temperamental blowfish; he is perhaps the only cast member whom I did not want to punish.
The last act develops a strange and unexpected subtext — I’m inclined to give the filmmakers credit for putting the controversial film into a supposedly universal family film, but they also obviously pulled it out of thin air when it became apparent that it might fit. That’s representative of Shark Tale‘s general attitude, which is to throw out as much as possible and hope some of it hits the mark. Not very much does.