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Say this for Shark Tale: its visuals are amazing. Led by Shrek co-director Vicky Jenson, the filmmakers have done a splendid job creating a vibrant underwater city — it’s like Times Square with barnacles — that’s swimming with life. The fish are fantastic: shimmering, iridescent creatures who represent a leap beyond what the computer animators of Finding Nemo were able to accomplish just a year and a half ago. Shark Tale moves at a lively clip, thanks to the fast-talking patter of its voice actors (especially Will Smith and Martin Scorsese) and a primarily hip-hop/R&B soundtrack that’s probably a first for an animated feature. Kids will laugh a lot and make the film a big hit.

But as they say on Broadway, no one ever left the theater humming the scenery. In the narrative and characterization departments, Shark Tale flounders. Oscar (Smith) is a little fish who’s all talk, but when a shark (one of the mobsters who menace the reef city) turns up dead, Oscar takes credit and rides a wave of publicity to fame and fortune. As in the Shrek movies, there’s satirical potential here, say, to comment on a celebrity culture that elevates people who have no real talents or achievements, but Shark Tale expends all its wit on throw-away pop-culture in-jokes and minority stereotypes. Some Italian-American groups have complained about the depiction of the shark mobsters (by such Mafia-tale regulars as Robert De Niro, Michael Imperioli, and Vincent Pastore), but the film is an equal-opportunity offender, with its apparently African-American characters (all hip-hoppers from the ‘hood), Jamaicans (two Rasta jellyfish), and one deeply closeted shark named Lenny (he’s a vegetarian, but as drawn here and as voiced in a high-pitched whine by Jack Black, he’s also one swishy fish). This sort of thing may float above kids’ heads, but it shows the movie to be lacking the one thing that Shrek and the Pixar films like Nemo have had oceans of: heart. (100 minutes)


Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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