"Is Shark Tale a sequel to Finding Nemo?" a friend inquired after learning I'd seen the movie.
"No," I replied, "it's a rip-off."
At least it's a colorful rip-off. In fact, there are so many bright, vibrant colors utilized in this computer-animated feature that it puts your rods and cones at risk. But Shark Tale causes more than retinal fatigue -- it induces extreme boredom.
Will Smith stars in the urban fable set far beneath the ocean as Oscar, a charmer of a cleaner-fish who works at the local whale wash (just like his father did before him), and dreams of the bling-bling life at the top of the reef (strains of Barbershop). Oscar's a filet with soul.
The reef is currently under siege by sharks, imagined by the filmmakers as Italian mobsters (strains of The Sopranos) led by the menacing codfather Don Lino (Robert De Niro). The don is set to retire and hand the family business of being top of the aquatic food chain to his sons Frankie (Michael Imperioli) and Lenny (Jack Black). Lenny, however, wants no part of the family business -- a closeted, self-loathing vegetarian, Lenny gets sick at the thought of killing another living thing.
Lenny and Oscar's fates converge in a meaningful way when Frankie is accidentally clobbered by a ship's anchor. Oscar takes credit for the kill and becomes hero of the reef. Lenny helps Oscar perpetuate the myth by pretending to let Oscar kill him. Oscar then disguises Lenny as a dolphin and gets him a job at the whale wash. An enraged Don Lino, thinking Oscar killed both his sons, seeks revenge. Had enough? I certainly did, by minute fifteen of this unimaginatively plotted ocean voyage.
Some may find quiet comfort in the obviousness of the story -- which also boasts a romantic subplot involving the pert and perky Angie (Renee Zellweger), who has harbored an unrequited crush on Oscar for years, and the steamed entree Lola, a flounder fatale, who's only interested in Oscar after he becomes a media star -- but I fished out only tedium.
A movie like Shark Tale relies on big, giddy bursts of humor to steer it through the doldrums, and the humor here is largely based in today's pop culture. While there is an occasionally funny moment (an empty Sushi restaurant, for instance, or a neon sign that reads "Drink Coral Cola"), the movie is bereft of any real wit. Most of the mob-based jokes are mildly unsettling -- there's just nothing funny about a shrimp pleading with a Great White Shark not to eat it.
Even the mandatory rubber stamping of a moral onto the story -- in this case, it's okay to be different, and those who really love you will love you no matter what you are (strains of any gay coming-out film ever made) -- lacks much in the way of conviction. It's just tossed into the movie's shallow water along with the rest of the chum.
Most of the primary characters have a creepy, unappealing look: fish with faces are not a pretty sight (by contrast, the Nemo animators did a much better job of combining human traits with denizens of the deep). Out of all the characters, however, the best is Sykes, a puffer fish voiced (in the movie's one inspired instance) by director Martin Scorsese, who brings a buoyant, hyperkinetic energy to the role. Whenever Sykes is agitated, he puffs up to full size and Scorsese's voice hits a helium high note that is genuinely, terrifically funny.
Other, less amusing characters include Ernie and Bernie, a pair of jellyfish henchmen depicted as Rastafarians, and slithery, toothsome green octopus who serves as Don Lino's consigliore.
While envisioning sharks as mobsters may seem clever to some, I find it downright insulting -- to sharks. After all, sharks do one thing and one thing well: eat. Where's the crime in that?
The real crime is that Shark Tale will more than likely make a ton of clams, which will in turn send the following signal to the real sharks in this story, Hollywood executives: Give something the right marketing hook and audiences will take the bait, even if it's already dead in the water.