A film review by Craig J. Koban

SHARK TALE j
½ 

2004, R, 89 mins.

Featuring the voices of:

Oscar: Will Smith / Lino: Robert DeNiro / Lenny: Jack Black / Angie: Renee Zellweger / Lola: Angelina Jolie / Sykes: Martin Scorsese / Frankie: Michael Imperioli / Don Feinberg: Peter Falk / Katie Current: Katie Couric

Directed by Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson and Rob Letterman
/  Written by Rob Letterman, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift and Michael J. Wilson

"Shark Tale (advanced double-sided)" Movie PosterConsider, if you will permit me to indulge you, the cinematic powerhouse tag-team that was actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese. 

Now, I freely use the term “was” rather reluctantly and specifically.  It’s been exactly ten years since the pair worked together on a film and that creation was the terribly underrated CASINO from 1995.  Their next most recent partnership was 1993’s remake of the Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck suspense thriller CAPE FEAR.  Yet, make no mistake about it, the team of DeNiro and Scorsese were the dynamic duo behind, arguably, three of the greatest films of the last 30 years of American cinema – TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and GOODFELLAS (1990).  There is no denying the strength and power of their respective resumes – a stellar list of accomplishments, to be sure. 

Now, having said that, if anyone in their right mind would have had the keen foresight to tell me, in 1995, that Scorsese and DeNiro would re-team after a ten year absence to do an animated film where one plays a puffer fish and the other plays a Mafioso shark, then I would have responded with the appropriate level of incredulity.  Then again, it has not been unheard of for actors to regain their former level of popular strength with the film-going public by making wacky animated comedies.  To jumpstart his sagging career, Eddie Murphy rejuvenated it by playing an ass – literally – in the last two SHREK films, so I guess if it works for one… 

SHARK TALE, the new computer animated film from the high tech wizards who gave us SHREK and the ROAD TO EL DORADO, is a film that pairs Scorsese, DeNiro, and a whole host of other all-star celebs in a would-be laugh riot under the sea.  To be honest, many critics and fans have criticized DeNiro’s film role choices as of late.  Yet, for an actor who has absolutely nothing to prove (two Academy Awards under his belt, not to mention a reputation as the finest actor of his generation), I feel that it’s kind of out of necessity and not whimsy that he has become much more open-minded and eclectic with his film choices. 

He has been spectacularly funny in comedies like the MEET THE PARENTS and its sequel MEET THE FOCKERS, as well as in other past comedies like ANALYZE THIS (where he lampooned is own mafia screen image) and MIDNIGHT RUN.  He was a riot in these films ostensibly because he played the roles straight and allowed himself, subsequently, to let laughs come out naturally.  So, in hindsight, it’s not such a deplorable thing that he is staring as the voice in a new animated feature.  Hell, even Woody Allen did it successfully in ANTZ (also from Dreamworks), where he spoofed his own idiosyncratic character from ANNIE HALL, so I guess we should give Bobbie DeNiro the benefit of the doubt. 

DeNiro and Scorsese are, in fact, the best part of SHARK TALE, but their funny banter and sly little in- jokes only go so far and, in no way, are enough to save the film from mediocrity.  The sheer problem with SHARK TALE is its widely inconsistent tone that tries to bridge the gap between asinine and infantile sight gags and dialogue with broad based and pointed satire.  The film is kind of a satire within a satire.  At one point it’s trying to be a spoof of modern, urban city life (with fish, of course), and on the other tangent it’s trying to drolly reference films and characters that most lay viewers, if not young children (the film’s ultimate target audience) would probably never relate to on any meaningful level.  When all is said and done, SHARK TALE is somewhat cute and silly, but in the lucrative waters of other vastly superior animated satires and films, this one lacks that sense of invigorating life and freshness.  It's pained, laborious, dreary, derivative, extremely dated with its humor, and a pandering animated film that lacks flash, punch, and flare.  This is one stale fish of a film. 

SHARK TALE is the latest from the directing team of Vicky Jenson (SHREK), Bibo Bergeron (THE ROAD TO EL DORADO) and Rob Letterman.  The setting, much like FINDING NEMO from Pixar Studios, is an underwater reef where sharks sort of rule the seas as the head gangsters.  Their base of operations: the sunken base of the Titanic, where else?  Outside of this base of operation lies the smaller bottom-feeder fish that live in a sort of underwater, aquatic New York, complete with stores that have somewhat funny references to real retailers.  Sorry, SHREK 2 already did this, and more effectively. 

The film’s narrative sort of plays out like THE GODFATHER, at least on a superficial level.  Other films that SHARK TALE takes great pains to reference include CARWASH, JERRY MAGUIRE, and even JAWS, the latter which feels the most dated in terms of laughs (how many times can that famous theme music be lampooned for a cheap giggle?).  At least in this case that shark theme song is actually referred to by the sharks in the film as their theme song, but I digress.  The main protagonist of the story is Oscar, an annoying and unlovable creation voiced by the talent of Will Smith.  Oscar is a small-fry fish that has aspirations for greatness and works a lowly existence at the local Whale Wash (funny, why would you need a car wash for whales under water, not to mention the fact that small fish live harmoniously with whales and not sharks?).  Well, the Whale Wash is run by the local fish mob and is headed by Sykes (the intermittently funny Scorsese).  Oscar is deep in debt with Sykes, which is made all the more worse by a rather unwise financial decision he makes later in the film. 

The fish gangsters are run by fish Don Lino (DeNiro), a ruthless shark if there ever was one.  He has two misfit sons, one is Frankie (Michael Imperioli) who is the son that all great gangster sharks aspire their offspring to be, and then there is Lenny (Jack Black) who is the polar opposite of Frankie.  You see, Lenny is a vegetarian and refuses to eat “other meat” thus, Lino is ashamed of him.  Needless to say, Don Lino is dreadfully ashamed of his son Lenny’s new leaf on life and orders him to learn how to be a “real” shark…or else. Well, inevitably, Lenny meets up with the equally hapless Oscar and, after a simple accident that kills Frankie, Oscar seems to get credit as the sea’s new tough muscle – a “shark slayer”.  Of course, Oscar goes home and becomes an instant hero and develops an aquatic love triangle with Angie (Renee Zellweger) and the local sexy babe with all the moves to melt a man’s, or fish’s, heart named Lola (Angelina Jolie, perfectly cast so to speak).  Would-be comic high jinks ensue. 

Ultimately, SHARK TALE is a real mess, and a distracting one at that; a family entertainment that really can’t put its foot down and simply tell a good, grounded story that generates any interest.  The real problem is it’s comic tone.  Yes, SHREK and SHREK 2 were also highly satirical and had laughs that would largely only appeal to older audience members, but it also didn’t grasp hard for those references to other films, and they didn’t go for tired and overdone references either.  The SHREK films also had a witty, subversive sense of charm and humor about them that made them sophisticated.  SHARK TALE is dreadful in how inconsistent it is with laughs.  The material with Scorsese and DeNiro generate some real chuckles, but no really big payoffs, not to mention that the film is populated by characters that you never really grow to like.  Smith’s main character is such a grab bag of clichés, stereotypes, and dumb-downed humor that you have to remind yourself to inspire empathy for him.  He’s more irritating than affable, and this combined with satire that’s topsy- turvy makes for an inconsistent 85 minutes. 

There have been other animated films about life under the sea, and works like THE LITTLE MERMAID and especially 2003’s FINDING NEMO (on my ten best of that year) knew impeccably that the best way to tell these fantastical stories about fish is to just let them populate their natural environment and let that act as a character itself.  The whimsicality of the characters inevitably shines through.  The catastrophic error that SHARK TALE makes is that it has no faith at all in the beauty and opulence that the aquatic scenery has to offer.  It’s a competently animated CG feature, to be sure, but it fails because it places its fish characters in human-like settings underwater.  Aquatic cities look like Times Square, complete with high-rise apartments, jumbo TV screens that play the local news (by Katie Current…hoo…hoo), restaurants, coffee houses, and so forth.  Maybe I am thinking a bit too literally here, but all the way through the film I was constantly thinking, why would fish need furniture, eating utensils, TVs, home theatre systems, telephones, cups for beverages, lava lamps in their apartments, apartments, and car washes??!!  I mean, if you had phones or microphones under water, would that not imply electricity, which would lead to huge problems with electric shock?  I dunno. 

In the annals of great, escapist computer animated entertainment, the cream of the crop of late would be the great INCREDIBLES, the last two SHREK films, with THE POLAR EXPRESS leading the pack.  SHARK TALE represents the lowest end of the spectrum; an animated film that I was a little surprised how much I disliked.  It does not have the edge of the SHREK films, the working satire of THE INCREDIBLES, the beauty and pageantry of FINDING NEMO, and definitely not the visual lustre and spectacle of THE POLAR EXPRESS.  What we are left with instead is a film that is a rather disappointing series of sight gags, badly cued satire, bothersome characters, and a boring and inert story.  SHARK TALE is one of the worst outings of the recent animated films, and its recent nomination for BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM at the Academy awards – and THE POLAR EXPRESS’ omission from that category – makes for one of the biggest Oscar miscarriages of justice ever.  

And, please, for the love of God, the great Martin Scorsese was never, ever meant to speak in a hip-hop dialect, albeit only for a few seconds.

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