Setting a mob comedy underwater -- sharks are The Family, natch -- is a kinda cute idea. But DreamWorks' animated feature Shark Tale, co-directed by Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron and Rob Letterman, feels like a lot of effort toward a fairly small end -- a mob parody starring fish, ha ha.
Our piscine hero is Oscar, a cleaner fish who lives in the ocean's hood, and whose debts run afoul of the sharks. Oscar gets a break when he befriends Lenny, a friendly vegetarian great white on the run from his destiny as an enforcer.
The film has few inspired moments; beyond its very basic story, it's simply a pastiche of hundreds of other bits of pop culture, from The Godfather to Gap TV commercials to The Jeffersons. (Probably the only riff missing is the Matrix bullet-effect.) Kids will enjoy it, but many of the gags, with their self-congratulatory winking, will be lost on younger minds. The mobbed-up sharks provide the most entertaining sequences, but even the best of the actors supplying their voices -- Robert DeNiro, Peter Falk -- have long ago made self-parody another expected tool in their arsenal.
The animation is fun to look at, and though it lets the filmmakers reinvent the real world, I found it distracting that these fish had human faces and arms, and were most often posed upright (are they fish or not?). It hardly helps that the characterizations are so broad. Fish may not shuck and jive, but Will Smith's Oscar comes perilously close; Jack Black plays Lenny like the aquatic love-child of Jaws and Harvey Fierstein; and Angelina Jolie's femme fatale fish, Lola, with her thrusting bosom, is just creepy.
DreamWorks can pout all it wants in its public pissing match with the other big digital animator, the Disney-Pixar venture, but watching Shark Tale there's no escaping the enormous shadow cast by that crew's orange-and-white clown fish. It may be unfair to compare them, but last year's Finding Nemo got us underwater first -- and Shark Tale has little of that film's charm, imaginative wit and breathtaking imagery. (Because animated features take eons to produce, it's inaccurate to accuse Shark of ripping off Nemo, but audiences may groan to see some of the exact same fish-related gags.)
By mid-film, Shark Tale had me compiling mental checklists of things I'd like to never see in comedies again: jokey product placement (Coral-Cola, Old Wavy); farting; guest appearances by pop-stars-of-the-moment (even thinly disguised as fish); mob parodies by mob thespians; Will Smith; and anybody -- anybody -- spouting what passes for hip-hop street slang in the plush-carpeted halls of Hollywood. In fact, there's something decidedly off-putting about this film's ghetto-izing a bunch of cartoon fish for laughs. "You go!" No: You go.