Shark Tale‘s shallow plot and leagues of padding put it fully in the shadow of last year’s animated underwater offering, the nifty, heartfelt Finding Nemo. On a more conceptual level, what were they thinking? It’s hard to imagine a kid so mob-obsessed she’d want to see Italian American stereotypes translated to the world aquatic. Adults may crack a smile, as when Vincent Pastore’s octopod consigliere threatens that a hostage will be “sleeping with the fishes—the dead ones.” The filmmakers don’t have enough faith in the world they’ve created, despite a promising initial vista of the reef as a teeming Times Square. Thus they crack the hermeticism with product placement (Coral-Cola, Kelpy Kreme), tired pop (if I hear that sugar-pie-honey-bunch song one more time, someone’s getting hurt), and film references. The most egregious example of the latter is when Oscar (Will Smith), our diminutive truth-fudging hero, reels off lines from Gladiator, A Few Good Men, and Jerry Maguire.
More fatally, the fin-flapping denizens are kind of horrible to look at. In particular, the piscine visages of love-triangulators Oscar, Angie, and Lola (Smith, Renée Zellweger, and Angelina Jolie) defy affection. Imagine creatures drawn to resemble the actors in question. Then erase the noses. Then add little triangular ear thingies. It’s like staring too long at one of those old ads for Sea Monkeys.
The actual sharks—chiefly, De Niro’s Godfather-ly great white and Jack Black as Lenny, his vegetarian, cross(dolphin)-dressing son—are easier on the eyes. The mobbed-up monsters congregate in the ruins of the Titanic, complete with Leo’s sketch of Kate still hanging from a wall. Lenny’s butch bro (Michael Imperioli) dies after running into an anchor while pursuing Oscar, who’s then falsely hailed as the “Shark Slayer.” Oscar’s former boss at the Whale Wash, a puffer fish known as Sykes (Martin Scorsese), becomes his manager, expanding dramatically when incensed. It’s a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of celebrity, and an oblique jab at Harvey Weinstein—just what your child needs.
Jar Jar Binks apologists may take a shine to Sykes’s Rastafarian jellyfish henchmen (Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug). But it’s hard to balance their slightly stoned vibe with their sadism as they torture a seaweed-bound Oscar. Unlike the bait worm that the gentle Lenny frees at the start of Shark Tale, the filmmakers aren’t off the hook for this one.