Rated PG - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 10/1/04

Shark Tale is the latest creation from the cartoon department of Dreamworks SKG, the company which, in its relatively short tenure, has produced such successful and innovative animated products as Antz, The Prince Of Egypt, and, perhaps best of all, the two Shrek movies. The reason I compulsively list the Dreamworks cartoon catalogue at the beginning of each of my reviews of them is so readers don’t confuse them with the more juvenile Disney offerings. Dreamworks cartoons have, so far, always been distinguished by their originality, adult-oriented humor and drier wit. Well, that trend may be over. While Shark Tale is as colorful, fun-loving, and fast-paced as anything the company has produced, it tells a story which is not exactly original, not terribly witty, and definitely not adult-oriented. But it’s still a good movie.

Directed by Bibo Bergeron (The Road To El Dorado), Vicky Jenson (Shrek), and Rob Letterman (his first feature), from a screenplay by Letterman and several others, it features the vocal talents of Will Smith, Jack Black, Renée Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese, whose characters all dwell at the bottom of the ocean. However, Smith’s character, a puny, high-strung fish called Oscar--though he’s not really an oscar--lives closer to the actual bottom than most of the others. And that’s his problem. Working at a whale wash (it’s like a car wash, but there’s much more barnacle removal involved), he dreams of a life at the top of the reef, in a penthouse apartment, above all the bottom-feeders who populate his poverty-stricken neighborhood. While his friend Angie (Zellweger) enjoys life well enough as long as Oscar’s around, he wants to live in a society where life isn’t so hard and no one has to fear the constant pressure of the menacing sharks that control the neighborhood.

The leader of said sharks is big boss Don Lino (De Niro), an aquatic goodfella who wants his two sons, Lenny (Black) and Frankie (Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos) to inherit the family business. But Lenny, a timid vegetarian, is not very well-suited to the lifestyle of his species, so his brother takes him out for a few lessons in remorseless killing. Unfortunately, it is Frankie whose life is accidentally snuffed out, and since Oscar happens to be in the vicinity at the time, word quickly spreads that he is responsible. He soon adopts the title of “Sharkslayer,” as it brings him just the kind of fame, wealth, and attention he desires, especially with the help of his new manager, Sykes (Scorsese), an opportunistic puffer fish who used to work for Don Lino. Meanwhile, Lenny disappears, so the Don is understandably keen to find the fish who apparently “whacked” his two offspring. While Angie is put off by Oscar’s new celebrity and conceited behavior, her place is taken by a fishy femme fatale named Lola (Jolie), whose intentions are, to say the least, unclear.

While this film shows that the Dreamworks animation dept. is clearly lowering its standards by going for the big bucks of child-oriented cartoons instead of continuing the struggle for hearts and minds of adult viewers, it is certainly not short of humorous movie references. In addition to nods toward sea-related classics like Jaws, Titanic, and Finding Nemo, there are also many other funny references to films like The Untouchables, Scarface, Jerry Maguire, and all three Godfather movies. And it does contain some funky tunes, including a dynamite rendition of “Car Wash” by Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot, which plays over the end credits. But with its setting so clearly reminiscent of Finding Nemo and its reliance on fast-paced action and dazzling colors rather than droll wit and adult-related referential humor, this film seems to indicate a movement on Dreamworks’s part toward a more broad-based approach, sinking ever so slightly into the ocean of sameness that has become de rigueur among movies in general of late. After delighting us with Shrek and Chicken Run—films which adults may have loved even more than the kids—and feeling the backlash of pushing it too far in the dirty-minded Cat In The Hat, the company has begun a gentle slide toward the yawning abyss of mainstream animation, foregoing some of the wit and biting satire for the possible bigger paycheck of a crowd-pleasing kiddie flick.

But it’s still a good movie. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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