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Shark Tale

Director: Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman
Cast: Will Smith, Jack Black, Robert De Niro, Renée Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese

(DreamWorks; US theatrical: 1 Oct 2004; 2004)


Oscar—the colorful, skinny, cocky fish voiced by Will Smith in Shark Tale—aspires to fame, wealth, and dates with beautiful women-fish. He also wants a de-luxe penthouse apartment located, not in the sky, as he’s a fish, but far from the Reef, the underclass neighborhood where he lives, surrounded by kids who regularly ask him for money and favors. As he looks out at the rest of the sea, Oscar sees affluence and billboards flashing pictures of consumables—Coral Cola, fast food, shell phones, and Kelpy Kreme donuts. Why can’t he have a piece of this pie?

For one thing, Oscar’s a working schlub, at least when he’s not slacking. Like his father before him, Oscar scrubs tongues down at the Whale Wash (a plot point that means the official soundtrack cd includes Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilera’s surprisingly unimaginative cover of “Carwash”). Always late for work, he’s lucky, when he thinks about it, to have a friend in the office, the receptionist Angie (Renée Zellweger), who regularly punches his timecard for him. This only puts off the inevitable run-in Oscar will have with his employer, puffer fish Sykes (Martin Scorsese). Oscar’s a wheeler dealer without deals or wheels, and has asked for a few too many advances from Sykes.

Now that Sykes is feeling pressure from up-top, that is, the local shark Godfather Don Lino (Robert De Niro), he puts pressure on Oscar to pay up. Unable to deliver, Oscar falls prey to Sykes’ henchmen, a couple of unfunny Rasta jellyfish (Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug), who drag him off to the middle of nowhere and torture him, while they decide how to finish him off. Just then, Oscar’s dream comes true, sort of, when a pair of sharks happen by. Don Lino’s sons—self-loving tough guy and heir apparent Frankie (Michael Imperioli) and his insecure, sweet-natured vegetarian brother Lenny (Jack Black)—are out looking for a fish for Lenny to kill, in order to prove himself. When Frankie is accidentally and quite perfunctorily killed, Oscar takes credit, assuming the mantle of Shark Slayer, and thus the enthusiastic adoration of his fellow fish, who have long felt threatened by Don Lino’s big bad famiglia.

Suddenly a celebrity—pursued by groupies, new friends, reporter Katie Current (Katie Couric), and gold-digging dragonfish Lola (Angelina Jolie)—Oscar is rewarded with lucrative endorsement contracts (suddenly, his face is on every billboard), and expectations that he will continue to protect the community from sharks. At the same time, Don Lino catches wind that his beloved Frankie has been felled by a Shark Slayer, and so he does what he must, he vows revenge. In an effort to secure their survival, Lenny and Oscar connive to put on a show—Oscar will “kill” Lenny in front of everyone, on tv. While this secures Oscar’s status, Lenny can mingle with the regular fish disguised as a dolphin (the draggy aspect here, along with Lenny’s generally stereotypical wussiness, suggests that he has gender issues as well, perhaps even sex orientation issues, though not quite so blatantly as, say the barkeep played by Larry King in Shrek 2). The father-son business is tired, of course (and yes, Finding Nemo got there first), with a sole bright spot in the occasional insider-industry jokes (say, between De Niro and Scorsese), though again, these are considerably less fresh than the first couple of times around, in the Shreks.

While Lenny provides Shark Tale with potential for surprises (remember too, Bruce in Finding Nemo, because DreamWorks can’t seem to come up with an animation concept without reference to Disney or Pixar), he is unfortunately overshadowed by Oscar, a much more regular character. His trajectory involves learning lessons, realizing his own inner goodness, and yes, schooling his new friend and his gangster to achieve healthy family relations (just how Oscar knows about this is unspecified, as he seems to resent his own hardworking, now deceased father, who never got off the Reef).

Vaguely more annoying is the romance that heterosexualizes Oscar (just so you don’t get any ideas about that instant buddydom with Lenny), in particular because he has no concept of it. His dense self-centeredness only makes poor Angie resemble too many girls in cartoony boys’ stories, devoted for no clear reason. As a story of class mobility with a conventional moral wrapped up inside, borrowing from previous plots and relying on covers for its soundtrack, Shark Tale is repetitive from jump.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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