Shark Tale Movie Review

It would be really interesting to see what an R-rated version of Shark Tale might encompass. All the mafia-related gags might hold more punch. The subplot, involving one shark's disappointment in his son, might reveal what a PG version can only hint at. As it is, though, we're left with a kids' film that, while consistently funny, is more cute than clever.

The story begins when Oscar (Will Smith), a working-class fish with fame and fortune on the brain, runs afoul of his boss, Sykes (Martin Scorsese), a puffer fish with the largest eyebrows known to aquaria. Deep in debt, Oscar is taken out to pasture by Sykes' Jamaican jellyfish goons (a hilarious Ziggy Marley & Doug E. Doug). Enter Lenny (Jack Black), a shy shark out on a mission to be toughened up by his brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli) on behalf of his shark mob boss dad, Don Lino (Robert De Niro). One thing leads to another, and suddenly it appears as if Oscar has slain Frankie.

All of this brings Oscar the fame and fortune he desires, but at the cost of his friendship with Angie (Renee Zellweger), a fish who wants to be more than just friends. Also complicating matters is fish fatale Lola (Angelina Jolie), who's drawn to Oscar's ill-gotten prestige. When Lenny comes looking for a place to hide from his father, Oscar is compelled to help him out, leading to an unlikely friendship that drives the rest of the movie.

Before the inevitable Finding Nemo comparisons begin, it should be noted that Shark Tale takes a completely different tack with its underwater universe. The fish of this film are far more anthropomorphized. They live in apartments in the coral reef equivalent of Times Square, watch TV personalities like Katie Current (voiced by Katie Couric, game for self-mockery), and gamble on seahorse racing. From this approach, the film mines much of its better gags, including a flashback of Oscar's afro-domed father and a sushi bar with no customers. Some of the humor is a little more middle-of-the-road (the film really likes puns). And some of the humor is just plain outdated, as if the fish universe is ten years behind this one. Do we really need another "Whoomp, There It Is" joke? And as funny as it may have seemed at the time, Martin Scorsese should never, ever try to talk hip-hop. Ever.

The performances are all about as effective as they need to be. While most of the fish look and sound like the actors who portray them, Jack Black stands out because he's so unrecognizable. He really seems to create a character unlike his screen persona, a vast departure from the other casting choices here. Unfortunately, the character he creates is never really allowed to develop into what he seems to be trying to become. But this goes back to the earlier problem of trying to make a kids' film playing off very adult stereotypes.

In a film geared toward more mature audiences, the primary conflict between Lenny and his father would not be over the fact that Lenny is a vegetarian. Rather, it would center on what this eating preference stands in for and what the film hints at repeatedly: That Lenny is one gay shark. Also, the film would be able to skewer the mafia films it can only gently reference here, since a more thorough satire would allow for much darker humor. As this may not have been the filmmakers' intention, the point may be moot. However, it begs the question as to why one would want to set this story in a mob environment in the first place, given the constraints of a family-friendly film. (The 1998 duel between A Bug's Life and the darker, failed Antz is an instructive precedent that Shark Tale's filmmakers obviously failed to study.)

Ultimately, though, to blame the shortcomings of this movie on the rating is a losing battle. Finding Nemo manages to be funnier and more entertaining with a G rating. That's not to say that Shark Tale isn't funny, or entertaining. It's just much more forgettable.

Dreamworks adds a new Shrek-style musical number to the end of the DVD, plus technical bloopers, commentary track, making-of footage, and over 20 kid-friendly features.

A gelatinous good time!


Shark Tale Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG, 2004


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