Shark Tale Review
By Shawn McKenzie 02/13/2005
Pacific Data Images, a.k.a. PDI, and Pixar are obviously in a head-to-head computer-animated rivalry, with each studio having their better year. In 1998, PDI achieved critical acclaim with their movie Antz, but in that same year, Pixar out-grossed them with their similar buggy story A Bug’s Life. Three years later, PDI achieved critical acclaim again with Shrek, and Pixar countered that with their Monsters, Inc. Both films grossed over $250 million, but Shrek out-grossed a little more and beat the Pixar film in the first ever Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars. Since then, Pixar has gotten back at PDI, in the box office and with the critical acclaim. In 2003, Pixar released Finding Nemo, which grossed over $339 million and won the Oscar that year. Last year, both PDI and Pixar released movies and both of them dominated the Oscar nomination race this year. Pixar was nominated for The Incredibles (review coming soon), and PDI was nominated for two movies, Shrek 2 and this movie, Shark Tale. All three movies did well in the box office, with Shrek 2 grossing over $436 million, The Incredibles taking in over $258 million (as of this writing), and Shark Tale grossing over $160 million, which was certainly the smallest of the bunch. While all of the films have been generally well received by the critics, Tale is the first movie between the two studios that hasn’t received overall critical acclaim. While I haven’t seen The Incredibles yet, I would have to agree that this is the first film from either PDI or Pixar that I haven’t given a perfect rating score, though it isn’t the worst animated film I have ever seen.
Loosely based on Kenneth Grahame’s 1898 story, The Reluctant Dragon, we meet shark brothers Frankie (voiced by Michael Imperioli) and Lennie (voiced by Jack Black) out hunting for food and coming upon a helpless worm (voiced by David Soren) on a fisherman’s hook. Lenny pretends to eat the worm, but he lets it go, disappointing his bother, which also disappoints their father, shark mob boss Don Lino (voiced by Robert De Niro), later on after that, because the older shark wants one of them to take over the family business someday. The reason why Lenny doesn’t want to eat the worm is that he is secretly a vegetarian, a trait that he displays later when he refuses to eat a bowl of shrimp (the head shrimp being voiced by Soren again.) Across town, we meet Oscar (voiced by Will Smith), a little fish working as the head whale tongue scrubber at Whale Wash in Reef City. He feels like the lowest blue-collar fish in the sea, and dreams about becoming famous and one day living in a penthouse at the top of the reef. He tells this to his best friend and co-worker, front office fish manager Angie (voiced by Renée Zellweger), who is secretly in love with the clueless Oscar. He is in a lot of debt to his boss, puffer fish Whale Wash owner Mr. Sykes (voiced by Martin Scorsese), because he had invested in some stupid get-rich-quick schemes, like “bottled water.” Oscar owes Sykes 5,000 shells, which Sykes needs to use to pay Don Lino for protection money. Angie offers to pawn her grandmother’s pink pearl at the prawn shop (the Prawn Shop Owner is voiced by Phil LaMarr) to pay off Oscar’s debt, but Oscar instead uses the money to bet on a sea horse race, because he overheard that it was a sure bet. When the sea horse loses, Sykes sends his two Rastafarian jellyfish thugs, Ernie (voiced by Ziggy Marley) and Bernie (voiced by Doug E. Doug), to tie Oscar up and leave him for shark bait. Frankie and Lenny come around, and once again, he saves the fish by pretending to eat him. When Frankie quickly discovers the truth, he gets frustrated and chases after Oscar, intending to eat Oscar himself. Unfortunately, an anchor from above hits Frankie on the head, killing him. Lenny is so upset that he swims away. The jellyfish come back and want to know who killed Frankie. Oscar sees this as an opportunity to be famous by lying that he killed the shark. Suddenly, Oscar is being billed as the Sharkslayer, because TV reporter Katie Current (voiced by Katie Couric) labels him as that, and he starts living the high life. Sykes, who feels like he now no longer has to pay Don Lino anymore, is now representing Oscar. The little fish is also getting attention from gold-digging fish Lola (voiced by Angelina Jolie), which makes Angie furious. Meanwhile, Don Lino is mourning the loss of his son, and he vows revenge on the Sharkslayer. After consulting older associate shark Don Feinberg (voiced by Peter Falk) and his consigliore octopus Luca (voiced by Vincent Pastore), Don Lino decides to send Lenny to take the Sharkslayer out. Lenny really doesn’t want to do this, but goes out anyway to confront the fish. When Lenny and Oscar meet (again), the shark tells the fish that he just wants to find a place to hide so he doesn’t have to kill anyone or take over the family business. Oscar hides Lenny in an old garage that he owns, and they start to become good friends. Oscar comes up with a plan that will help everyone. He pretends to slay Lenny, which will make him even more famous and will allow Lenny to hide away for good, since his father will no longer be looking for him. Angie discovers this plan, and she doesn’t like it, but she doesn’t stop them. They pull off the ruse, and Don Lino assumes that both of his two sons are now dead, so he abducts Angie in retaliation and uses her to capture the Sharkslayer. Oscar and Lenny (now disguised as a dolphin) must race to save Angie, regardless of the extreme risk in doing so.
Despite trying directly to compete with The Incredibles, this movie was actually trying to be the urban version of Finding Nemo. With the hip-hop and the mob element, it was different, but I wouldn’t exactly say it was better. Fortunately, I liked it more often than I disliked it. I just wouldn’t consider it an instant classic like the Pixar or Shrek movies.
For me, just a few things made me not want to give it a perfect rating. One thing is that the story was just a little too heavy on the product placement puns. They turned Coca-Cola into “Coral Cola,” The Gap into “The Gup,” Krispy Kremes into “Kelpy Kremes,” and Burger King into “Fish King.” What is this…“American Idol?” The joke wore thin after a while. Also, not wanting to spoil the ending or anything, but the movie ends sappy instead of sweet, like the ending of Nemo.
Other than that, I liked the movie, unlike my fellow critics. There were many things to like about it, from the entertaining story, to the vocal performances, to the way the characters were drawn, to even the cameo appearances. I’m not sure why the movie was so offensive to the Italian community, because there have been mob stories in movies for almost a hundred years. It has only been in the last few years that our politically correct society has had a problem with them. HBO’s “The Sopranos” (which includes Imperioli) has gotten some flak because it portrays Italian stereotypes, which is the same criticism that this movie received. I bet they were more sensitive about the issue because it was marketed for kids, whereas “The Sopranos” and most mob movies are marketed for adults and usually garner an R rating (or a TV-MA rating in “The Sopranos’” case.) My only objection over the story is that it wasn’t exactly original, but it entertained me at least. I liked the vocal performances, especially Smith and De Niro (in his animated vocal performance debut.) I wished that Black had been allowed to be more wild and crazy here, but he was okay. I liked how the animators made all the characters look like their human real-life counterparts, from De Niro’s mole to Scorsese’s eyebrows. The cameo appearances were hilarious too. Most of them weren’t essential to the story, but they were very funny. I liked Soren’s various performances, especially as the shrimp, who begs for his life not to be eaten by the sharks. Shelley Morrison (Rosario from “Will & Grace”) appears as Oscar’s next-door neighbor Mrs. Sanchez, and Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot appear at the end of the movie to sing a remake of Rose Royce’s 1976 hit “Car Wash” (Missy even includes the line “This is a Shark Tale exclusive.”) The funniest cameo performance had to be that of Crazy Joe, voiced by David P. Smith. He was the lobster who lived in a trashcan outside Oscar’s building who had delusions of grandeur and really was crazy. He popped up occasionally during the movie and always had something very funny to say.
Okay…so Shark Tale is the first movie to not get universal acclaim by me or other critics for either PDI or Pixar, but it isn’t the worst computer-animated movie ever (does anyone remember 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within?) Though it does have its flaws, it is a fun movie at least to rent for yourself or your kids. I think that kids only recognize stereotypes when their parents tell them that they are watching stereotypes. It’s not like kids are going to really want to be either a fish or a mobster, don’t you think? Just be glad that you can watch some escapist fun with or without your kids joining you. This may not be PDI’s year to win the Oscar (even though I haven’t seen it yet, my observations indicate that The Incredibles will win), I think that they will continue to produce quality movies (next on tap is Madagascar, being released in May), so I’m not worried about the state of the animation studio or what they will produce.
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