Its not fair that the comparisons between SHARK TALE and FINDING NEMO are inevitable. Few films could weather being held to that high standard and not found wanting in some respects, and so it is with Dreamworks latest foray into the world of animation. Its not that SHARK TALE is a bad film, its not. But while it is charming, if suffering a surfeit of cutesy pop-culture references, it lacks both the originality and the ineffable something that can best be described as zing that NEMO had.
The film, youll pardon the expression, floats along on that charm, specifically, the considerable charm of its talented cast led by Will Smith. Hes Oscar, a guppy with big dreams of living large that belie his current job scraping tongues at the local whale wash. That doesnt bother Angie, the angelfish (what else) receptionist, who secretly pines for Oscar. He, of course, hasnt noticed, what with his get-rich-quick schemes resulting in him owing 5000 clams to the whale washs owner, Sykes (Martin Scorsese) a puffer fish with expansive tendencies. Things take a turn for the lethal when the reefs Godfather, a shark named Don Lino (Robert De Niro), leans on Sykes, who in turn leans on Oscar for repayment, who in turn should have been turned belly up by a pair of Rastafarian jellyfish henchmen. Instead, because of a peculiar turn of events, he becomes a shark slayer. Well, not really, but after a tragic accident takes out one of Don Linos sons, things get muddled and Oscar, seeing a chance to make a, again youll pardon the term, splash, fibs his way to the top of the social food chain. Naturally, things get even more complicated from there, starting with his run-in with Lenny, Don Linos kelp-eating other son whos on the lam from taking over the family business and the carnivorous life it would entail, literally and figuratively.
The film scores high in its voice casting that takes marginal material and makes it seem better than it is. Smith doesnt so much act as be himself, or at least the genuinely likable persona that he has cultivated — boisterous, fast-talking, and full of an effervescent ebullience. Zellweggers inflection is hominy thick with spunky southern charm and sentiment, while, Black never becomes overbearingly schmaltzy as the cuddly, oversensitive and underbrained shark who would rather be pals that predator.
The animation is an eyeful, dressed up in day glow colors and meticulous rendering that almost lets you count the scales on the characters. Yet, what is most laudable is how superbly the animators have captured the actors voicing the characters. Its more than giving Don Lino De Niros mole, mimicking Angelina Jolies lips as the dragonfish gold digger of the piece, or strategically placing fins that evoke Smiths exuberantly jutting ears. They have mimicked the facial expressions and body language with astonishing detail, adding an oddly dissonant but delightful verisimilitude to fish with all-but human faces. Take De Niros signature slow burn and sudden explosions of rage, of course this time instead of Al Capone ticked off at Eliot Ness or Jake LaMotta ticked off at the world at large, it’s Lenny’s refusal to chow down on the victual of choice, the one begging for its life. He, along with Scorsese, have a gift for schtick that lets them, and us, have fun even with a stale bit about doing the piscine version of the high five, the high fin. Its that, coupled with the a gift for schtick, that lets De Niro and Scorsese have fun with a stale bit about doing the piscine version of the high five, the high fin while doing a dynamite parody of their cinematic wise guy, goodfella history. In fact they pretty much steal the film.
There are a few gems, such as what happens when someone tries to pour a cup of coffee underwater, or the unexpected wonder of a seriously a snarky shrimp, but there are far more missed opportunities, such as having a lava lamp that doesnt take a maritime twist, or giving Don Lino an octopus for an aide-de-camp. If theres a joke in there, I sure cant find it. Mostly, though, its a gentle comedy that teaches the requisite lesson about being yourself while taking no chances whatsoever, unless you count not changing the lyrics to the 70s classic Carwash even as the object being washed is a whale.