In 1998, DreamWorks animation and Disney-distributed Pixar released competing movies set in an anthill, both centered on a misfit ant with a special relationship with the ant princess (Antz and A Bug’s Life).
Now, a year after the triumph of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, a fish story with a trio of sharks who’ve sworn off eating fish and a puffer fish who inflates with stress, comes DreamWorks’ Shark Tale, another fish story with a vegetarian shark and a puffer fish who inflates with stress. Given the production times these films require, Shark Tale was probably in production before Finding Nemo hit theaters. You don’t suppose anyone could be peeking, do you?
Incidentally, DreamWorks’s Shrek and Shrek 2 were based on childhood fairy tales, roughly corresponding to Pixar’s Toy Story and Toy Story 2, which were about childhood playthings. This makes Monsters, Inc. the only Pixar film to date with no DreamWorks parallel (though November will see a second, The Incredibles).
In my review of Shrek 2, I wrote that "If Pixar’s Toy Story movies connect with the child in all of us, DreamWorks’ Shrek pictures are aimed squarely at our inner adolescent." The same holds true of the rival fish stories, which, vegetarian sharks aside, couldn’t be more different.
Along with its DreamWorks CGI predecessors, Shark Tale is more absurdist and satirical, as well as cruder and more risqué, than the Pixar films. It’s also got less heart. In fact, with the possible exception of A Bug’s Life, any film in the Pixar oeuvre is easily superior to any film in the DreamWorks lineup.
But Shark Tale, while it’s no Finding Nemo (and isn’t trying to be), is the wackiest, most energetic, and possibly most entertaining effort to date from DreamWorks’ CGI animators. I enjoyed it more than either of the Shrek flicks, which are entertaining enough, if in my book somewhat overrated.
Where the Shrek films began with a fairy-tale story and then festooned it with modern sensibilities and anachronism-rooted gags, Shark Tale does the opposite: It begins with familiar movie settings, characters, and situations and gives them an undersea twist. Where Finding Nemo was an anthropomorphic fish story, Shark Tale is a thinly fishified people story.
The result is a constant stream of fish puns, sight gags, homages, and the like. The story is set in a coral-reef West Side, where fish eat Kelpy Kremes, drink Coral Cola, get their news from Katie Current (Katie Couric), and shop at the Gup. And when Oscar (Will Smith), a young street fish too preoccupied with things and money he doesn’t have to notice how fond of him a spunky co-worker (Renée Zellweger) at the local whale wash is, gets in trouble with a mob boss (Robert DeNiro) over borrowed money, of course the moneylenders are sharks. (Like all mobsters, they’re also Italian — and Catholic, judging from a fleeting "In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti" heard during a funeral.)
Needless to say, before all is said and done, Oscar will come to realize that you don’t need money to be someone. Shark Tale also touches on such themes as telling the truth, being true to one’s friends and not getting caught up in artificial popularity or false friends, the dangers of gambling and get-rich-quick schemes, and taking pride in oneself and one’s roots.
On the other hand, while the film avoids Shrek 2-style cross-dressing jokes, adults may not appreciate (though kids won’t notice) themes involving a sissy shark who at one point "dresses" like a dolphin as a disguise, to his macho father’s chagrin.
Other potential concerns for younger viewers include hip-hop milieu of the heavily utilized soundtrack, Angelina Jolie’s bad-girl picean temptress (think of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’s sultry Jessica Rabbit), a bit of crude or suggestive humor, and a particularly violent snatch of dialogue ("May his stinking, maggot-covered corpse rot in the fiery depths of hell").
For ’tweens and up, though, Shark Tale is a fun ride, thanks to its zippy storytelling, zingy dialogue, and energetic vocal performances. Smith’s charisma anchors the picture as Eddie Murphy’s wit did the Shrek films, and DeNiro is funnier than he’s been in ages. Zellweger is appealing as always, and Martin Scorsese has an entertaining cameo as a bottom-feeding puffer fish.
The animation is colorful and flashy, though it’s here that Shark Tale most obviously contrasts unfavorably to the visually stunning Finding Nemo. Incidentally, what kind of fish is Oscar? Despite his name, he doesn’t look like an oscar. Kind of like how Marlin wasn’t a marlin. You don’t suppose anyone could be peeking?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.