Shark Tale is an animated film, though after you see it you might wonder whether the term is intended as oxymoronic. Put simply, it has no life in it at all. Not even the kids roped into an afternoon preview screening seemed terribly interested. Perhaps they've grown tired of computer-made cartoons, their little tummies too full of big-screen cotton candy that's appealing to stare at for a few seconds but stomach-turning after 90 minutes. Or maybe there's a reason Mark Cuban has assembled a panel of tykes to ferret out the frauds who'd pick the pocket of The Benefactor: They're little bullshit detectors, incorruptible and wise when they sense someone trying to offer them crap while calling it fudge. You could hear them squirming and fidgeting over the sound of silence, where presumably DreamWorks intended peals of laughter to mask the soundtrack bereft of a single joke worth recounting, much less telling at all.
Likely DreamWorks would counter that Shark Tale, with its casting of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and Sopranos refugees doin' dat goombah ting dey do to friggin' death, isn't intended for children at all. This isn't an excursion into the land of fractured fairy tales, like Shrek or its far-superior sequel. (This movie's co-director, Vicky Jenson, made her debut on Shrek.) There's nothing at all sweet or endearing about Shark Tale, no warmth compensating for the clinically cold computer-generated animation. In fact, it's downright mean-spirited, stunningly violent (for a movie ostensibly created to sell Happy Meals and action figures and bathtub floaties), kinda racist (all the Italians work for the Mob; all the African-Americans live in squalor), and cynically crass. If you don't think Katie Couric was cast as newscaster Katie Current for some extra free pub on Today, then perhaps you also think Coca-Cola and the Gap receive their plugs gratis, out of the kindness of DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg's heart.
The plot, such as it is, has to do with a little fish named Oscar (Will Smith) dreaming of escaping his graffiti-covered ghetto 'neath the sea and movin' on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky, or at least a little closer to the surface. Sporting the bling, though unable to afford bling-bling, Oscar works his crap job at the whale wash, scraping tongues and chatting up his lovestruck best friend, Angie (Renée Zellweger), whose affections Oscar doesn't notice. On the other side of the reef, De Niro's Great White Shark Don Lino is putting the protection squeeze on whale-wash owner Sykes (Scorsese) and trying to teach his son Lenny (Jack Black, playing Italian but sounding vaguely Irish) to be a killer, when he's just a softie vegetarian.
Turns out Oscar's been borrowing money -- about 5,000 clams, nyuck -- from Sykes, who needs the money to pay the don, so Sykes has his Rastafarian jellyfish goons, played by Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley, torture Oscar when he can't pay up. The scene of the two translucent stoners zapping Oscar into an X-ray is torture enough; like most of the movie, it's played for laughs that never materialize. But what makes it especially irksome is the use of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" on the soundtrack; Ziggy even joins in, all but corrupting the piece about singing "sweet songs of melodies pure and true." But the movie thrives on inserting these dirty little details into a kids' story: the black eye Oscar sports after the jellyfish get hold of him, a shrimp begging Don Lino for its life by explaining that it's raising its dead sister's crippled child, a shark being killed by an anchor that drops out of nowhere, a homeless and deranged crab who lives in a Dumpster.
Even if this were an adult comedy, more South Park than Shrek, it wouldn't matter, because the jokes don't work. The movie's so wildly uneven in tone and texture, it could make you seasick -- and worse, Shark Tale prompts the question of whether a parody of a parody is indeed a double negative. Where Shrek existed atop a pile of pop-culture references cobbled together to create a screenplay, its sequel used those throwaway references to TV shows and other movies only as slight, sly accents. The first movie, with its Matrix gags and Rupert Holmes digs, had all the energy of a sitcom; its successor smartly chose story over satire and was warmer to the touch for it.
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Shark Tale, written by a first-timer named Rob Letterman, can't even muster up the energy or the smarts to put its handful of pop references into context. It's enough, apparently, to parody The Godfather and The Untouchables for the umpteenth time and merely set it underwater, or to have Will Smith shout, "Oscar bomaye!" and "You had me at hello" at no one in particular and for no reason at all, while Zellweger's character raises an eyebrow as if in pity. (And it's just embarrassing to hear Scorsese shout, "Raise the reef!") It's stunning, really, to consider how much time and expense went into something so chintzy and dull -- a script full of non sequiturs shouted by a screen full of chum.