Shark Tale (U)

2.00

Floundering in the wake of bigger fish

In keeping with a modern trend, the new DreamWorks movie,
Shark Tale, makes free with nods and winks to other movies: you won't have any problem spotting references to
Jaws,
Goodfellas,
The Godfather,
Jerry Maguire,
Titanic,
Car Wash,
Seabiscuit and sundry others. But the one movie it won't, can't, daren't make any mention of is it's rival studio Pixar's animated underwater epic
Finding Nemo, which came out this time last year. The fact of this film's later arrival shouldn't be an issue - after all, it's not about who does it first but who does it best - yet comparison of the two leaves
Shark Tale looking very much the inferior.

In keeping with a modern trend, the new DreamWorks movie, Shark Tale, makes free with nods and winks to other movies: you won't have any problem spotting references to Jaws, Goodfellas, The Godfather, Jerry Maguire, Titanic, Car Wash, Seabiscuit and sundry others. But the one movie it won't, can't, daren't make any mention of is it's rival studio Pixar's animated underwater epic Finding Nemo, which came out this time last year. The fact of this film's later arrival shouldn't be an issue - after all, it's not about who does it first but who does it best - yet comparison of the two leaves Shark Tale looking very much the inferior.

It's not that it lacks wit, exactly, nor that it suffers from a shortage of celebrity voices to carry that extra frisson of knowingness. Any film that brings together Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and slyly manages to caricature both of them as a beetle-browed blowfish and a great white shark respectively, can't be absolutely dead in the water. And transplanting a story of mobsters and mafia lore to the ocean deep also gives rise to some chuckle-worthy sight-gags and morsels of invention, even if the aquatic setting makes it tricky to apply the line about "sleeping with the fishes".

The plot turns on the ambition of Oscar, a small-fry hustler who works at the local "whale-wash" and longs to live in a penthouse at the top of the reef. (It is, as you can probably infer, the most anthropomorphic of animated films yet). Being voiced by Will Smith, Oscar does a lot of "comin'-at-ya" street-jive and indulges a self-regard that's not far short of bumptious, a failing overlooked by a kind-hearted angelfish (and secret admirer) Angie (Renée Zellweger). Meanwhile, further up the food chain, Lenny (Jack Black) is a great white shark with a problem: not only is he peaceable and sensitive, he's a committed vegetarian, a lifestyle choice that infuriates his mafioso dad Don Lino (Robert De Niro) who's trying to groom him as a future godfather.

Fate entwines Oscar and Lenny when the latter's brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli, from The Sopranos) is accidentally killed in a collision with a ship's anchor. By a stroke of luck, Oscar is discovered next to the dead beast and is instantly hailed as "the shark slayer", a fiction he readily endorses when fame and fortune come calling. That isn't all: once he becomes intoxicated by his own legend he drops the faithful Angie to hook up with a beautiful fish-fatale named Lola (voiced, with languorous insinuation, by Angelina Jolie). Naturally, Oscar's bogus bravery soon rebounds on him, since the denizens of the reef now expect round-the-clock protection from hungry sharks, a quandary further complicated when Lenny shows up, on the run from "the family".

The first half-hour of Shark Tale has a nice comic snap to it, and certain visual flourishes bear a lunatic inspiration: when Oscar needs to make a score, he goes off to the track where he blows 5,000 clams - on a seahorse. I loved the shrimp that begs for its life when faced by the lacerating jaws of Don Lino, though I'm not quite sure whether young children will be quite so amused. De Niro and Scorsese work up a neat little double-act as the Don and his bagman, bickering over a single word ("what") in the cherished style of Mean Streets. Best of all are two Rastafarian jellyfish enforcers (voiced by Doug E Doug and Ziggy Marley), whose laid-back demeanour hides a vicious sting.

Set against these felicities, however, is a frenetic and over-elaborate design, the centrepiece of which apes the neon billboards of Times Square, advertising "Coral-Cola" and "Gup". It's the sort of jokey product placement that Shrek 2 wallowed in, and it feels every bit as tiresome. According to the production notes there are black-and-yellow-checked fish shoaling about like New York cabs, but the screen became so frenzied that I failed to notice them. Too much of this undersea world has been borrowed from the human - Oscar's penthouse with its hi-fi gadgetry is the most obvious - and some of the comedy falls apart on examination. The fast-food joint "Fish King", for instance, would make sense if it was among the sharks, but within the fish city it suggests cannibalism.

More seriously, the movie has no dramatic bite. Whereas Finding Nemo nimbly switched its focus between Nemo's imprisonment in the fish-tank and the father's odyssey in search of his lost son, Shark Tale never gets beyond feeling pleased with its gangster-shark conceit. De Niro may be doing his wise-guy best in the vocal department, but he misses any quiver of menace: one never really believes that Lenny is in danger. Will Smith also puts effort into his streetwise hero, bubbling over with an exuberance he would like to think is infectious. But he's showing signs of Robin Williams syndrome, where almost every line he speaks carries a note of pure entreaty: "Please love me and my rowdy but endearing boyishness". If he isn't careful it might become a schtick to beat him with. Animation is undergoing such rapid advances at the moment that we may have become slightly spoilt: the level of sophistication is on such a steep upward curve that under-par material is quickly found out. Shark Tale is no disaster, but despite the efforts of three directors, two screenwriters and phalanxes of technicians, it seems to be treading water.

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