Once upon a time, DreamWorks and Pixar went feeler-to-feeler with two movies about insects, Antz and A Bugs 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, youd think DreamWorks wouldnt have to prove anything by now. But, despite waiting a year or so, it almost seems like its going in for a rematch by making Shark Tale Katzenberg and co.s own water-wonderland story featuring a piscine hero thatll invite inevitable comparisons with Pixars 2003 megahit Finding Nemo.
Unfortunately, although it has moments with real comic bite, the rather less engaging Shark Tale probably wont sink its teeth into viewers hearts and wallets the same way the little clown fish and his aquatic chums did.
Thats not to say its 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. Youll 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, theres plenty of enjoyment to be had from witnessing what may go down as one of Robert De Niros better performances of the new millennium (although thats not really saying much), while Martin Scorsese is hilarious as the bushy-eyebrowed blowfish Sykes.
Standout sequences include the whale washs introduction (set to Rose Royces 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 Tales flaws. For a start, its central character, South-Side-of-the-Reef-dweller Oscar (voiced by Will Smith), is a bit of twat. Its 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 doesnt 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 thats the essence of why Shark Tale wont 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 wont be losing much sleep over this one.