Shark Tale is an ugly sole, a real hook, line, and stinker. It also loves puns. There's not a fish crack or aqua gag it doesn't take a snap at. Me too. Rancid sushi comes to mind.
There's more recycling here than a tidal pool. Recycling is in the water, though. For instance, at the moment, two time capsules are vying for your attention down at that Hollywood fish bowl we call a movie theater. Neither could exist without other movies to draw from; neither could be made without the assistance of digital fishmaking; neither could be shot in the confines of the actual physical world (which, incidentally, is three-quarters ocean). And both, coincidentally, feature the predatory jaws of Angelina Jolie.
In Shark Tale, even though it's animated, Jolie is immediately recognized by her inner-tube lips and smoked-salmon voice. She's also a real dragon fish. As in, a real dragon fish. In the other film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, she's a troop commander and the look is so unique, it suggests the film is from a parallel dimension where every day is the 1939 World's Fair and art deco rules. It is entirely about our pop ether but feels as fresh as vacuum-sealed tuna.
Shark Tale, on the other hand, to put it plainly, is trawling in over-fished territory. It wakes up on the wrong side of the corral reef, where jokey, lazy, self-referential movie references stand in for an actual movie.
I liked two things in it: Robert DeNiro, who plays the shark don of the oceanic mob, the codfather to all he surveys. His assistant is an inspired choice: a blowfish with the hyperactive rat-a-tat of Martin Scorsese, along with the great director's bushy gray eyebrows.
They have the kind of rattling conversations you get from old friends, and it gives the film a league or two of genuine depth.
Actually, I liked three things: Jack Black voices a timid shark (son of the don) who longs to cover himself in blue paint and cross-dress as a show dolphin.
At moments like these, the DreamWorks film (from the people who made the Shrek movies) suggests a promising, more urbane alternative to the sunnier suburban vantage of those Pixar people, an alternative the way Looney Toons once countered Disney.
What they're not adept at yet is connecting their characters to any genuine emotions. Finding Nemo, for example, an obvious reference point, plays a movie first, and an animated movie second. Shark Tale can't be bothered to swim higher than the level of sitcom scenarios or the usual moral lessons about being yourself and never telling lies.
Small kids won't object. Older ones, raised on Toy Story, will feel the smack of condescension. The Will Smith fish is an ingratiating hustler who finds himself in debt to the Scorsese fish for 5,000 clams. He takes credit for killing a mob shark and hatches a plan with his angelfish (Renee Zellweger) and Black's shark that ensures fame for him and a way out of "the family" for Black.
Along the way, Smith learns that life as a bottom-feeder is not all bad, and Black decides to tell his family that he is blue at heart - not great, not even Jaws.
I couldn't even get past the look of Shark Tale, which is professional and sparkling but flashy and dead, too, like a dinner theater production of Nemo; and the fish-celebrities kind of creeped me out. Picture Will Smith without a nose. And none of it is as energetic as the flood of puns and old movie lines that are played as if being clever is the same thing as being smart. They read Newsreef. They shop at the Gup. Shark Tale, though, sleeps with the fishes - as one mob shark clarifies, "dead ones."
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org