Shark Tale (2004): DreamWorks Underwater Animation–Case of Sources and Identity Crisis

DreamWorks’ new underwater animation, Shark Tale, suffers from a severe identity crisis. Who’s the movie made for? Certainly not young children.

For starters, most of the characters are mature, and half of them are mobsters. Furthermore, the themes and plot devices are mostly recycled goods, based as they are on old Hollywood movies, from The Wizard of Oz to The Godfather and GoodFellas.

The whole film is imbued with a cynical, noirish sensibility, from the obsession with fame to the crime elements to Angelina Jolie’s seductive femme fatale.

Co-directed by Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron, and Rob Letterman, from a screenplay by Michael J. Wilson and Letterman, Shark Tale is a high-concept animation, a mob comedy-spoof with an urban backdrop undersea. As a follow-up to the studio’s blockbusters Shrek and Shrek 2, Shark Tale is a disappointing film. There’s too much inside jokiness, too many pop culture references, too much talk, and not enough originality or resourcefulness to make it a fun, entertaining picture. Inevitable comparisons will be made to the Disney-Pixar dazzling underwater animation, Finding Nemo, a charming, joyous mega-hit from which Shark Tale borrows quite a few elements, including the father-son subplot.

Shark Tale also suffers from over hype. The film’s extensive marketing campaign began in May in Cannes, and it continued steadily, building up to the picture’s world premiere at the Venice Festival. With such media blitz, no film, not even a good one, which Shark Tale is not, can live up to the expectations.

The story, the characters, and the jokes in Shark Tale are all familiar. The environment known as the Reef’s food chain is under siege by Great White sharks, headed by the godfather, Don Lino (Robert De Niro), whose headquarters are in the ruins of the Titanic. Lino has two sons: the older and masculine Frankie (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli), and the younger and sensitive Lenny (School of Rock’s Jack Black). Lenny claims that he’s different from the other sharks, but he doesn’t reveal his big secret until the end.

Sykes (Martin Scorsese), a puffer fish full of hot air that never misses an opportunity to make a few extra clams, is a mob subordinate. He operates a Reef whale washer, where raucous dreamer Oscar (Will Smith) works. A nobody who wants to be somebody, Oscar is a fast-talking fish whose big dreams and grandiose plans usually land him in hot water. He underestimates his sweet co-worker Angie (Renee Zellweger), a beautiful angelfish who harbors a secret crush on him, and easily succumbs to the temptations of the Uptown life as represented by the temptress Lola (Angelina Jolie), a femme that’s a cross between a lionfish and a dragonish and knows how to use her feminine wiles to get what she wants.

Accidentally, Oscar becomes a celeb known as The Shark Slayer, based on his claim that he handled Frankie on his own. Oscar embraces his newfound celebrity, with the guidance of the shrewd and corrupt Sykes. But the story of a little fish that turns into an improbable hero through lies and manipulation for the sake of fame, fortune, and respect is not particularly interesting.

The film’s good parts concern the unlikely friendship that develops between a Lenny and Oscar, but it takes too long before the comedy and the heart of the picture begin to reveal themselves. The movie is a bit of everything: A bit irreverent, a bit subversive, a bit playful, but it lacks a unified thematic or visual conception. The Shrek movies worked effectively on two levels: as playful commentaries on genre, specifically send-ups of fairy tales, as well as legit fairy tales with their own merits.

In contrast, Shark Tale comes across as a pastiche of conventions of the mob film genre, but without the kind of plot or characters that would give the picture a distinct identity. Unlike the Shrek movies, Shark Tale doesn’t have “something for everybody,” and the audience will have hard time rooting for any of the characters, including the sensitive Lenny.

The tale’s goal, like that of Wizard of Oz and countless other fairy tales, is to open Oscar’s eyes, to show him that there’s no place like home. Everything Oscar ever wanted was there all along, he just failed to see that the good life was right in front of him. But despite the humanistic message, and its “nobody’s perfect” ideology (Oscar is vegetarian), the film is too cynical and too street-smart for its own good.

Visually, too, Shark Tale is unsatisfying. The production design, costumes, and cinematography are not freshly thought out: The imagery is often crass and the colors (yellow and purple) lurid. Despite lavish budget, the film’s settings are neither inventively imagined nor fully realized, perhaps due to the restrictive nature of the locations.