Oscar (Smith), an ambitious, fast-talking fish, wants to be more than just a whale-washer. Lenny (Black), a sensitive, vegetarian shark, doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his Mafioso dad (De Niro). The two are brought together by a fatal accident and a tall tale, but come to learn the importance of honesty.
Once upon a time, DreamWorks and Pixar went feeler-to-feeler with two movies about insects, Antz and A Bug’s Life respectively, released just a month apart. Pixar won in the end, both with critics and at the box office, by dint of better character design, smarter storytelling and prettier pastel colours.
After making well over a billion dollars on the Shrek franchise in the last few years, you’d think DreamWorks wouldn’t have to prove anything by now. But, despite waiting a year or so, it almost seems like it’s going in for a rematch by making Shark Tale — Katzenberg and co.’s own water-wonderland story featuring a piscine hero — that’ll invite inevitable comparisons with Pixar’s 2003 megahit Finding Nemo.
Unfortunately, although it has moments with real comic bite, the rather less engaging Shark Tale probably won’t sink its teeth into viewers’ hearts and wallets the same way the little clown fish and his aquatic chums did.
That’s not to say it’s a complete floater. As with the Shrek films, the better jokes are aimed at grown-ups more than at kids, particularly the tongue-firmly-in-cheek, quasi-gay references at the end. You’ll most likely get off on spotting all the movie allusions, covering everything from the obvious Jaws and The Godfather references, to the likes of Gladiator, Jerry Maguire and Titanic.
Also, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from witnessing what may go down as one of Robert De Niro’s better performances of the new millennium (although that’s not really saying much), while Martin Scorsese is hilarious as the bushy-eyebrowed blowfish Sykes.
Standout sequences include the whale wash’s introduction (set to Rose Royce’s Car Wash, a predictable but still effective choice), and a racetrack scene in which the competing creatures are, you guessed it, sea horses. And, yes, one of them is called Seabiscuit.
All this, however, is needed to balance out Shark Tale’s flaws. For a start, its central character, South-Side-of-the-Reef-dweller Oscar (voiced by Will Smith), is a bit of twat. It’s hard to like a character so shallow his big dream is to someday live in a penthouse apartment complete with DVD player and surround-sound speakers (how they will work underwater is not explained). And it doesn’t help that his incessant, smartarse jive-jabber becomes irritating after about 20 minutes.
But the biggest problem is that the design looks clunky, cluttered and, well, just not very aquatic. The lead fish, for example, are mostly lurid, misshapen creatures. Vertical most of the time rather than fishily horizontal, they bring to mind rejected characters from one of those Soviet-era cartoons, perhaps from a landlocked country like the Czech Republic that only saw seafood in tins before the Velvet Revolution came.
As if to distract us from these mutant creatures of the deep, the backgrounds in the underwater city are awash with annoyingly relentless product placement jokes (‘Gup’ for Gap, ‘Coral-Cola’
for Coca-Cola, and so on), a gag that stopped being funny in Shrek 2 after about five minutes. And that’s the essence of why Shark Tale won’t go down as an animation classic: it treads water when it should be swimming upstream, leading the studio forward. John Lasseter and the Pixar posse won’t be losing much sleep over this one.
Shark Tale is servicable, family entertainment, but not half as sharp as it thinks it is. There’s no denying the appeal of seeing Scorsese and De Niro reunited onscreen for the first time since Guilty By Suspicion, but although the vocal performances often amuse and delight, the overall design is charmless.