Animation formula

DreamWorks’ ‘Shark Tale’ doesn’t top Pixar’s ‘Finding Nemo,’ but it comes close enough
By WALLACE BAINE
Sentinel film writer

Formula? Yeah, you could call it that, though fans of computer animation might prefer “recipe.”

If you get the feeling you’ve seen “Shark Tale” before, you’re not far off.

The latest warhead in the blockbuster arms race between the film’s creator DreamWorks and its rival Disney/Pixar has all the elements you’ve seen in “Shrek,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and the rest of the now decade-old genre that has all but killed traditional animation: a fun fantasy otherworld, zippy movie-star voices, bucketloads of clever pop-culture references and, naturally, a likable hero character who finds personal happiness by doing the right thing.

Yes, it’s all been done before and that matters not a jot. I mean, no one ever complains that the roller coaster takes the same old route every time, do they?

“Shark Tale” is 100 minutes of zippy, intoxicating fun, depending on the same kind of rat-a-tat-tat pace of comic gags that has characterized its forebears. The success of these pictures is due only partly to their well-known cross-generational appeal. They are also cash cows because they’ve mastered the art of attracting repeat audiences. Kids like to see their favorite movies over and over again, but these new family blockbusters, by their relentless cascade of in-jokes and sight gags, get the adults coming back again to see what they missed the first time.

“Shark Tale” rewards the movie-savvy grownup not only with references galore to “Titanic,” “GoodFellas,” “Scarface” and “Car Wash,” but also by drawing their characters with a more keen eye to who is voicing them. My daughter can laugh at the motormouth puffer fish’s bushy eyebrows, but I know where those eyebrows come from, Martin Scorsese, the man providing the voice.

No one’s playing against type here. The big stars are all goofing on their own public personas, getting us to laugh while they laugh at themselves. Will Smith, laying on the “Fresh Prince” shtick with a paint brush, is one of two central figures in the film. He’s Oscar, a mouthy, yellow-faced little fish who works down at the local Whale Wash scrubbing plankton out of whales’ mouths.

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Oscar’s a bit of a hustler who dreams earnestly of upward mobility, which makes him completely oblivious to the fact that his “best friend,” a cute pink angelfish named Angie (Renee Zellweger) is sick in love with him.

The film’s other storyline involves a family of sharks, drawing broadly from Italian gangster stereotypes. Robert De Niro, in full goombah mode, plays Don Lino, the patriarch of the family of Great Whites who rule the reef. He’s grooming his two sons to follow his lead but one, Lenny (Jack Black), has no stomach for “the life.” He’s a moony girlie-man vegetarian who chafes under his father’s intimidating personality.

The two worlds clash when Lenny’s mook brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli of “The Sopranos,” of course) is killed while chasing Oscar. Oscar falsely takes credit for killing the shark, making him a big- time hero back in the reef as the “Shark Slayer.” Lenny, in turn, wants to avoid his father’s wrath and live his own life, so the two strike a deal. Oscar can pretend to “slay” Lenny in front of the folks back home (and to the sharks who are coming after this “Shark Slayer”). Oscar keeps the sharks away, Lenny gets to disappear. A win/win situation, right?

Like Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” which it only superficially resembles, “Shark Tale” takes advantage of the wild diversity of ocean life to create a dazzling array of fun characters including Angelina Jolie as a femme-fatale gold-digger, Katie Couric as the local anchor-fish Katie Current (ha!) and my favorites, a pair of jellyfish re-fashioned as sinister rasta men (voiced wonderfully by Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug).

But at its heart, “Shark Tale” draws a broad contrast between two types of cinema-oriented cultures. The sharks live in the sunken remains of the Titanic (Is that the famous Kate Winslet nude sketch hanging on the wall? It is!) where Don Lino holds court in enormous, slightly seedy old-school banquet rooms.

The reef where the other fish live, on the other hand, is a crawling, vibrant metropolis with high-rent districts and funky working-class boroughs. Oscar’s story is told with the same jaunty street style of 1970s ghetto comedies, of which 1976’s “Car Wash” was the prime example.

Both venues come with what some folks might see as unflattering stereotypes. But, with the exception of Lenny the vegetarian shark, all the characters are steeped in stereotype, the harmless kind that make humor work.

If “Shark Tale” is missing anything, it might be that hard-to-pinpoint undercurrent of poignant sweetness that Ellen DeGeneres gave us in “Nemo” and Mike Myers in “Shrek.” It doesn’t rise to the greatness of “Nemo” and “Shrek.” But otherwise, this fine, silly, snappy family extravaganza follows the formula to the letter. And that’s a good thing.

Contact Wallace Baine at wbaine@santacruzsentinel.com.
If You Go

WHAT: ‘Shark Tale.’

RATING: PG: Some mildly crude humor.

WHERE: Santa Cruz Cinema 9, 460-2599.

LENGTH: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

VERDICT: B+.