Online entertainment columnist Jim Hill wrote earlier this year about the fact that Shrek 4D, the 3D movie now showing at Universal Studios theme parks on both U.S. coasts, was produced under the close scrutiny of Dreamworks Animation head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg and worked on by the company’s “A Team.” In other words, this little “theme park show” was given the same level of craftsmanship and attention to detail as Shrek’s big screen presentations. “Why for?” Well, Hill writes that Katzenberg perceives Shrek as Dreamworks’ big, green version of Mickey Mouse–their iconic star character–and so anything that Shrek’s involved in must be kept up to high standards so that his “brand” isn’t diminished. This whole issue never really struck me with what that fully means until I saw Dreamworks’ latest computer animated flick, Shark Tale, and I realized that Shrek is pretty much all Dreamworks Animation has going for it.
Ben Franklin wrote that, “fish and visitors smell in three days.” Well, I saw Shark Tale on opening night and found it to be already a bit stinky.
What’s good about Shark Tale? Well, I have to admit that the animation is quite good and the dazzling array of colors given to the underwater imagery is quite stunning, but, much like the Mariana Trench, it all drops off steeply from there.
One thing that continues to bug me about Dreamworks Animation is that they always put their films’ “star power” above everything else. While a studio like Pixar puts the story first, animation second and then “stars” a distant third, Dreamworks makes the fact that Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Jack Black, Renée Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, etc., all talk during the movie the MAIN selling point in every ad I’ve seen for Shark Tale. At the end of the film, each of the main characters are shown in a still frame with the name of the actor voicing them visible on the screen. To further beat us over the head with the notion of, “look who we signed to talk in this movie,” all the actors–with the notable exception of Jack Black–essentially are just playing “themselves.” Will Smith plays a fish version of the Will Smith persona we’ve seen in every other film he’s been in. De Niro plays the same tired mobster persona he’s played to the point where he doesn’t even need to parody himself anymore. Only Black breaks from his usual “persona” to play an unusually sensitive shark, and, as a result, his was the only performance worth noting and the only one I can say I enjoyed.
Merely having A-list stars is not the main ingredient to having a good and/or successful movie. I wish Dreamworks would learn this. Pixar did a long time ago. While Dreamworks was busy parading Antz around as starring Woody Allen, Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, Danny Glover, Anne Bancroft, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez and Christopher Walken, A Bug’s Life was stomping all over them at the box office with the likes of Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jonathan Harris, John Ratzenburger and Phyllis Diller. And you know what? Phyllis Diller was easily many times better in A Bug’s Life than Gene Hackman was in Antz. Why? Because she was cast for how well she fit the role, not because she was merely a name to put in the poster.
“Okay,” you say. “So the big-name actors playing themselves bugged you, Sombrero Grande. We get that. Is that all that sinks Shark Tale?” No, impatient reader, there’s more, like the fact that the story is as weak as a jellyfish out of water. There are a couple creative moments, but mostly it plays out very predictably and uninterestingly. Oscar (Smith) is a bottom-of-the-food-chain fish working at a Whale Wash (and, yes, predictably the tired, overused “Car Wash” song is trotted out here, remade by Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott as a “hook” for the soundtrack album) who dreams of bigger things: living at the top of the reef, surrounded by lots of “bling-bling.” When dumb luck saves him from a shark attack, Oscar dubs himself the “Sharkslayer” and gets a taste of the lifestyle of the rich and famous. This does not go over well with Don Lino (De Niro), the mob boss of the great white sharks, whose son was the one Oscar claims to have whacked.
The whole gangster storyline feels disquietingly out of place in this kids’ movie. Oh sure, you could argue that computer animated movies are designed for all ages, but once you get a load of all the juvenile humor in Shark Tale, you may join me in making an exception for this one. If it’s not bad fish puns (yep, there’s a “sleeping with the fishes” joke) it’s farting or burping or butts or slime or something else that only kiddies find hilarious–kids and Hollywood executives, apparently. There’s a few clever parodies of movies like Titanic, The Ring, Gladiator, Seabiscuit, etc., that are there for the adults in the audience, but the main focus of the humor is clearly aimed at the grade school level.
The story ends with an abrupt turn-around that just didn’t sit well with me, like the writers found themselves in a corner and took the easiest way out possible. Another thing that bugged me about the writing in this movie is the fact that it reeks of the kind of white-guys-trying-to-write-“black” that you normally find in UPN sitcoms or Sprite commercials. Stereotypes and cobweb-covered catch phrases from the likes of M.C. Hammer are supposed to be “hip” comic gold?
Speaking of commercials, what is up with all the product placement in this film? Yeah, okay, they call Coke “Coral Cola” and the Gap is the “Gup,” but still, there are moments in the film where it’s so blatantly an ad for a product that no amount of name altering can hide it. A “Kelpy Kreme” Doughnuts bag plays a significant role in a couple scenes in the film, which wouldn’t bug me so much if I didn’t walk into my neighborhood Krispy Kreme and find an actual “Kelpy Kreme” Shark Tale doughnut for sale. In these times when shopping malls become “shoppertainment” tourist spots, I guess the line between commercial and entertainment will just continue to get further pushed back and blurred.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the world of Shark Tale takes place in a weird, stylized hybrid of New York streets and a kelp forest that never really gels. It’s a disconnect that never feels “right” or makes any kind of sense.
One thing that surprised me about Shark Tale is that I was expecting a parody or jab at Finding Nemo, but never found one. Perhaps the folks at Dreamworks read my RKO 281 review and took my advice that it’s not a good idea to reference a better film in the course of a mediocre work. Dreamworks may have nabbed the animated feature Academy Award for Shrek, but Sombrero Grande predicts the main character in Shark Tale will be the only “Oscar” ever associated with this movie.