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'Shark Tale' plies familiar waters

The computer-animated film combines overdone Mafia comedy with stale bromides.

October 01, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Shark Tale" is an underwater movie that's gone to the well once too often. For reasons both in and out of its control, it does not have as much invigorating freshness as audiences have come to expect in computer animation.

One thing "Shark Tale" (directed by Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron and Rob Letterman) couldn't control was the accident of timing that has it hitting the water in the wake of the equally aquatic "Finding Nemo," one of the best-loved hits of the past few years.

Not that the film doesn't try hard, especially in its look, to make us forget the past. "Shark Tale's" story is set in a visually lively undersea Manhattan, the kind of place where fish talk on shell phones and shop at Martha Sturgeon, and what meets the eye is enticing.

Equally entertaining are some of the film's peripheral elements, like a pair of Rastafarian jellyfish enforcers played by Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug and the completely charming concept of an undersea whale wash, where grit- and graffiti-encrusted behemoths get to luxuriate in a tongue scrubbing and turtle wax combination, hang the expense.

"Shark Tale" doesn't stint on casting, either. Some of the biggest stars in the business -- Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Jack Black, Robert De Niro and Angelina Jolie -- tackle this story (written by Michael J. Wilson and codirector Letterman) of the unlikely friendship of two undersea dwellers unhappy with their stations in life.

Up first is Oscar (Smith), a little fish who is livin' small but dreams big. Working at the whale wash under the watchful eye of the admiring Angie (Zellweger), Oscar worries that "nobody loves a nobody" and dreams of scamming it rich and moving to the elite Top of the Reef.

Lenny (Black) has the opposite problem. As a shark and the son of Godfather Don Lino (De Niro) to boot, he is at the top of the food chain. But Lenny is a secret vegetarian who wants nothing more than to flee from his father's stern philosophy: "You see something, you kill it, you eat it. It's a fine tradition."

Naturally, fate and a lot of plot contrivance bring these two together, and Oscar ends up with a completely undeserved reputation as the heroic Shark Killer. The only question is how big a hole he will dig himself before the truth outs and restores moral rectitude to the world.

One of the problems with "Shark Tale" is that it's composed of too many standard components. The concept of Mafia comedy has, heaven help us, been done to death, and memories of "Analyze This" and "Analyze That" are not exactly pleasant ones.

Just as off-the-shelf are the lessons this film has in its mind to teach us: Be yourself, don't pretend, love your children the way they are, and never forget "your life is a choice you make." Admirable sentiments, but even William Bennett might feel they come off as a bit canned.

Perhaps in an attempt to compensate, or to so wear us out we won't notice, "Shark Tale" is incredibly busy. This is true both of a plot line that gets more convoluted than a review can recapitulate and the rat-a-tat speaking style of many of its characters. Without the charisma of Will Smith's physical presence, Oscar's chattering comes off as wearing, and that goes double for the double-time talking of Martin Scorsese (yes, the director) as Oscar's boss, Sykes.

What "Shark Tale" finally doesn't have is the kind of effortless sophistication that marked "Nemo" at its best and that has become the trademark of all Pixar-produced computer-generated features. DreamWorks has matched Pixar stride for stride in its pair of "Shrek" features, but not here. Younger kids will not notice the difference, but adults likely will.


'Shark Tale'

MPAA rating: PG for some mild language and crude humor

Times guidelines: Bathroom humor and an animal death

Will Smith ... Oscar

Robert De Niro ... Don Lino

Renee Zellweger ... Angie

Jack Black ... Lenny

Angelina Jolie ... Lola

Released by DreamWorks. Directors Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron, Rob Letterman. Producers Bill Damaschke, Janet Healy, Allison Lyon Segan. Executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. Screenplay Michael J. Wilson and Rob Letterman. Supervising editor Nick Fletcher. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Daniel St. Pierre. Art directors Samuel Michlap, Seth Engstrom. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

In general release.

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