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"Shark Tale" - Expecting Less and Getting More

If you were to come to a judgment on the quality of the recent Dreamworks/PDI film Shark Tale wholly from the film you'd be expecting via its trailers and television spots, you'd come to the conclusion that it was a mindless piece of pop-culture-referencing, hip-hopped-to-death, stars-shining-brighter-than-story stinkbomb. Suffice to say, that's what I was fearing it would be as I walked warily into the theatre. My earliest hopes for the film, once promisingly entitled Sharkslayer, were dashed as rumors of it being PG-13 came to naught, the name was changed to the silly aforementioned pun, and commercials of Will Smith making a joke out of "white fish" started pouring into the public consciousness. The ads are misleading you. It's certainly not a heady drama of any sort, but if you think the comedy of the commercials is indicative of the rest of the film, you are sorely mistaken.
Critics of Shrek, and thusly of the work from PDI, have charged them with crafting films too enmeshed within referential humor and not enough heart. They're likely to say similar things about this film, even though the flat-out references themselves are not that numerous, and some are even there to kid themselves. At one point while fighting a shark, Will Smith's character Oscar screams "Are you not ENTERTAINED?!", in an obvious reference to Gladiator. Had it stopped there, it would've been a cheap referential gag. But then Oscar goes on to scream a couple of other movie quotes that I will not list here - just believe me when I tell you that the true effect is to not spoof Gladiator, but actually to spoof referential humor itself. The character interplay is rather strong; so strong, in fact, that characters like Lenny (Jack Black) and Oscar are not nearly as entertaining as when they're together. Will Smith does have a tendency, especially in the beginning, to get really hyper with his characterization. Once the plot settles, it seems he does as well, or at least his antics seem to fit better.


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Much has been made of the star-studded cast, for better or worse. Whether the story has been guided there by the cast or the cast by the story, everybody fits their role pretty well. Like I said, Smith's antics fit the plot better than the character, but once things get rolling, he can be really quite amusing. De Niro has fun kidding his image with Don Lino, while still providing that sense of menace that only he can do. Jolie is good as the seductress Lola, but her character is something of a plot device, so she lacks depth - which, I suppose, is fairly proper. (She says it herself: "Deep down, I'm really superficial.") The happiest surprises of the film, in my opinion, are Zellweger, Black, and Scorsese. The casting of Martin Scorsese was sort of meant as a laugh on its own, but he brings wonderful energy and appeal to Sykes the blowfish, and manages to be more likable than Oscar at certain points. Renee Zellweger is the only cast member who pretty much hooked me with her performance from the very beginning, not because it overflows with effort, but because she brings key vulnerability to all of her scenes. In fact, she makes the film work: by drawing the audience's sympathies to her and the unrequited love she has for Oscar, we are granted permission by the film to view Oscar as an idiot and treat his idiocies like actual idiocies. Suddenly, the film's not stupid because it's aware of who is.
And then there's Jack Black. I can't imagine how he got this role, because he's the only "name" actor in the bunch who's not playing a character within his typical repetoire. Black is known for that sloppy machismo thing, like in Shallow Hal or School of Rock. Here, his Lenny is a real character creation, and it's the kind of performance that career voice actors will probably rather appreciate. The ads, as I mentioned earlier, misrepresent the way this film works, particularly by using a couple of shots and moments that don't actually appear in the film. One of those moments in the ads is where Lenny admits to being a vegetarian at the early dinner scene with his father. Yes, that particular facet of Lenny's personality has already drawn lots of comparisons between this film and Finding Nemo. But this is a whole different ballgame. The "vegetarian shark" issue is a much bigger deal here, and it's somthing that Lenny keeps bottled up inside for practically half the film, unable to tell his father. There's a metaphor at work here, one that is likely to slip past kids. Shark Tale is the closest I've ever seen an animated film come to examining the travails of a son telling his father he's gay. I'm certainly not saying that vegetarianism and homosexuality are interchangable, but Lenny's characterization makes the implication impossible to deny - especially later in the film when Don Lino gets mad about how Lenny is "dressed". It's a curious and original facet, and while it has to remain trapped wholly in the subtext, it lends the film much more interest than one would have expected.
So let's face it: the packaging for this film is messed up. It's even present in the film itself - the high-octane opening is likely to swirl brains, and the ending would've been entirely more amusing or even bearable had fish versions of Missy Elliot and Christina Aguilera not shown up to sing a remake of "Car Wash". All outward appearances seem intent on making the film look brainless. And even I will tell you that it's not really much of a film for plot. The specific moralizing of the film is as old as the hills, and there's more than one deus ex machina at work, especially the really obvious one that sets the plot in motion. But what the marketing fails to communicate is that the film is indeed entertaining, in a sometimes goofy, sometimes random, but often clever way. If I had to rate the film just as an exercise in story, it wouldn't go very far. But I don't. Things can still be entertaining if not meaningful, and while Pixar's The Incredibles is likely to be just as entertaining (if not moreso) and also spin some excellent drama from it, fun is still fun. And that's what the rating below reflects. This was fun.


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on October 3, 2004

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