Guided by voices 

A review of Shark Tale

click to enlarge A little fish named Oscar (Will Smith) and a big shark - named Lenny (Jack Black) become unlikely best friends in - Shark Tale.
  • A little fish named Oscar (Will Smith) and a big shark named Lenny (Jack Black) become unlikely best friends in Shark Tale.

Shark Tale (PG)

Terrific voice characterizations by Jack Black, Rene Zellweger, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Will Smith can't elevate Shark Tale to the greatness of last year's animated instant classic Finding Nemo. Relentless commercial retail references, a shoddy pop music soundtrack, and an ill-conceived story about Lenny (Jack Black), a vegetarian mobster shark unwilling to do his family's violent bidding, immerse Shark Tale in a murky narrative pool. However, the film's lush animation and brilliant iridescent colors are exemplary. Oscar (Will Smith) is an ambitious little fish who takes undeserved credit for the accidental death of Lenny's big brother shark Frankie (Michael Imperioli). Oscar enjoys a shot-lived run of enriching public adulation that promptly endangers Angie (Renee Zellweger) the one fish that really loves him for who he really is. Predictable fart jokes and endless puns attend the humor.

The most satisfying element in Shark Tale is the joy of hearing the crafty vocal characterizations invented by its all-star cast. In animated movies, the dialogue is typically recorded before the film is made so that the cartoon characters can perfectly mouth the words just as the actors spoke them. With this in mind, it's especially enjoyable to imagine Jack Black walking into a sound studio and tearing into his chewy dialogue with a voice that we've never heard before. Adult audiences will take special glee in hearing longtime dramatic partners Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro grinning under their breaths as they poke fun at their Mafia embroiled fish characters.

De Niro's Godfather-shark Don Lino is a tough guy with soft spot in his heart that's just waiting to get out. You can hear it in his voice from the first words he speaks even as he's instilling fear in everyone around him. The high humor for older audiences comes when De Niro's character dresses down Martin Scorsese as a puffer-fish owner of a swim-through whale wash establishment based on a former car wash place in downtown Manhattan.

The underwater city where the story takes place is a submerged Manhattan with red coral-encrusted high rise buildings that resemble towering infernos. Shark Tale's Manhattan is a city under constant threat of siege by a group of great white sharks that, like terrorists, can attack without notice. It's within this dark undercurrent of reality that music supervisors Darren Higman (Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed) and Laura Wasserman (Moulin Rouge) contaminate the movie with an inconsistent soundtrack that blinks from unbefitting songs like "Car Wash" and "Baby Got Back" to on-the-nose commentary songs like "Mack The Knife" and "Movin' On Up." In an effort to make the movie be all things to all people, the filmmakers have planted musical landmines that will have various segments of any audience tuning out at regular intervals.

Pixar Studios' rich technological advancements regarding computer generated underwater animation with Finding Nemo are evident in every frame of this DreamWorks movie. But the poor quality of screenwriter/co-director Rob Letterman's story can't keep pace with the visual advancements that have been made. Recent foreign animated masterpieces such as Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence or Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets Of Belleville point toward innovation in the depth of stories available to animation. The old Disney formula that has been refurbished into movies like A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc, and even the glorious Finding Nemo, is a dated form that doesn't support the incredible visual advances that have been made in the last five years.

Animated movies, like live-action films, deserve genre specific delineation instead of the hodgepodge treatment that Hollywood imposes on every animated project it produces. Shark Tale is a movie that panders when it should ponder, and flinches when it should deliver a punch line. No amount of vocal characterization, distracting music or pretty colors can cover up those kinds of flaws.

-- Cole Smithey

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Tinseltown

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