Sunday, October 24, 2004

Shark Tale

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2004 at AMC Fenway #8 (out of four)

I'm trying to remember when voice talent started moving above the title in animated features. Shrek, obviously. Was Osmosis Jones billed as Chris Rock's movie? I don't think so, although I think the Farrellys and the live action cast were billed. Antz probably would have been, if Woody Allen had allowed it. Ice Age was, Titan A.E. wasn't. It's not like the studios kept the talent a secret, but DreamWorks has changed the game by building (and selling) animated features as star vehicles.

Shark Tale is very much a Will Smith vehicle. As a fish named Oscar, the Fresh Prince cracks wise, is initially immature but wises up by the end; he talks in that sort of in-between manner, recognizably rap-influenced, but with the sort of proper diction and lack of cursing that makes him non-threatening to the white folks. Similarly, Robert De Niro does the De Niro role, a shark who's the head of the local mob. Renée Zellweger is the funny girl-next door type, Angelina Jolie is the sexpot, and all the sharks except Jack Black's Lenny (who obviously isn't like the other sharks) are voiced by familiar mob types. It's using their movie star status as character shorthand, a longtime trick for live-action movies but seldom so explicitly used in animation as it is here.

The story is an odd combination of a kid-friendly version of "Jack the Giant Killer" and an adult-oriented mob spoof. After Oscar is sent out to be whacked by local underboss-type Sykes (Martin Scorcese as a pufferfish), a deus ex machina leaves mob heir Frankie dead and Oscar on the scene. So he's hailed as the Sharkslayer, becomes a local hero, but things get hairy when Lenny threatens to expose Oscar's lie.

By the time I'm writing this, the movie's already had three weekends at the top of the box office which, while not an indication of objective quality, does mean that some things I figured might be issues obviously aren't. Shark Tale has as awkward a marriage of kiddie plotting and reference-based jokes as any animated work since Animaniacs, but folks seem to go for it (see also: Shrek). Speaking of Shrek, the use of music is as uninspired as it is in Shrek 2 - Hans Zimmer's score is fine, but the pop songs always seem like the first one somebody thought of for a scene, rather than a particularly perfect/clever one.

The movie looks pretty enough, with lots of bright colors and as many jokes hidden in the corners of the screen as in the Shrek movies. As with those movies, the setting owes more to 20th/21st Century America than the actual undersea environment in which it takes place. By making the coral reef a big city, there's some obvious opportunities for product placement, which is kind of obnoxious. It's hard not to compare it to Finding Nemo, which was able to create a sort of sense of awe and wonder with its undersea world while Shark Tale just gives us variations on something familiar.

(Not that one should give in to the temptation to call Shark Tale a Nemo copycat; aside from the lead time necessary to make an animated movie, smooth-textured things like fish, insects, and toys are just logical subjects for CGI-based movies.)

Shark Tale has quite a few funny moments, and a few which aren't as funny as they perhaps should be. It's an average movie, which makes it good enough for a watch in my book. Don't ask me why this is a huge hit while Sky Captain has underperformed at the box office; sometimes audiences are just funny that way.

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