There's an old shark joke that asks: What happened when the shark tried to eat a crate full of bubble gum? The
answer is simple - he bit off more than he could chew. This joke, I feel, is an appropriate analogy for DreamWorks'
latest animation project, "Shark Tale." In the film, a small fish named Oscar gets into big trouble when he lies about
slaying a shark. Complicating matters is a sensitive great white he befriends named Lenny, who has become an outcast
from the shark community due to his vegetarian ways. Together, the two concoct a scheme of all schemes to deceive
everyone along the reef and get what they want, whether it be fame, fortune, or in Lenny's case, seclusion. Try as it
might, the film wants to be as pleasing as "Finding Nemo." But because of a weak script, insufficient character depth,
and poor perception of its own target audience, "Shark Tale" surfaces in theaters as a colorful, yet misguided wad of
pre-chewed bubble gum.
Oscar is a fast talking fish that works at a local whale wash, scrubbing mammals for a living. It's not a glamorous job
by any means, but it pays the bills. And while working, Oscar dreams of super stardom and moving into the top of the
reef. The reef itself is ruled by a family of sharks; in particular, Don Lino and his two sons, Frankie and Lenny. While
Frankie takes after his father's carnivorous ways, Lenny does not. And after Lenny reveals that he is a kind hearted
vegetarian shark, his father orders his other son to show Lenny the ropes and the true meaning of sharkhood. But the
instruction is short lived, however, as an unexpected anchor drops onto Frankie's head, killing him instantly.
By circumstance, Oscar is at the scene of the accident. But rather than tell the truth about Frankie, he takes credit for
killing the shark and is labeled across town as a 'sharkslayer.' Instantly, Oscar achieves fame and fortune, is taken
under the wing of Sykes, owner of the whale wash, and is seduced by the slinky dragon fish, Lola (much to the dismay of
love interest, Angie). However, unbeknownst to anyone, Oscar incurs the friendship of Lenny, an outcast shark in need of
a home. With Don Lino furious over his son's death and demanding revenge against the so-called shark killer, the two
concoct a scheme to get what exactly what the other wants, but one that has serious consequences for life under the sea.
DreamWorks is desperately trying to keep pace with Pixar. In fact, the animation studio has gone so far as to
pick up on Pixar leftovers. Following in the footsteps of "Finding Nemo," "Shark Tale" involves colorful fish
as protagonists, vegetarian sharks, and aquatic animals living in a large coral reef. In much the same way
that "Antz" postdated "A Bug's Life," DreamWorks has once again mimicked a successful model. Yet what makes
Pixar films unmatched is their ability to insert their own flavor of quirky, intellectual humor without
resorting to pop cultural spoofs and cartoon equivalents. As "Shark Tale" demonstrates, there are no laughs
that fall outside of references to "Jaws," "Ali," "Jerry Maguire," "The Today Show," "The Apprentice," and
more. Like "Shrek 2" had a tendency to do, the film settles for easy pop targets instead of creating its own
brand of humor.
At the crux of "Shark Tale's" problems is a story that fails to connect with its target audience. Promoted, packaged, and
distributed to children, the film relies heavily on adult themes and references to tell its story. A huge miscalculation. In
particular, it centers on the 1970's Coppola epic, "The Godfather," among other gangster flicks like "Scarface," "Goodfellas," and "Once Upon a
Time in America." Will younger audiences make the connection? I highly doubt it. These films were released well before
their time. Will they understand the adult themes involving gambling, love triangles, and social class? Probably not.
And what about the motivation of the main character? Oscar is motivated by greed and fame and tells a whale of a lie to
get what he wants in life. Not exactly the type of influence or messages we should be sending to children, now is it?
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film involves the blatant use of racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes. In
the film, sharks are represented by Italians (as mafia, of course!), jellyfish are represented by Jamaicans (performed by
Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug), and Oscar and other fish speak in urban hip-hop-ese. Much of this is the result of lazy
character development, substituting stereotypes and spoofs for unique and ordinary personality traits. And as the film
progresses, these characterizations become more and more annoying. But nothing quite as tasteless as when Lenny paints
himself in aqua blue and dons a yellow scarf - the ultimate jab at homosexuality. Says Lenny: "Here I come! Ta-da! I'm
Sebastion! The whale-washing dolphin!"
The only thing that wasn't a turn off was the animation. Even though DreamWorks has a way to go in the originality,
story, and character departments, they do have a unique and colorful way of animating their vision. In contrast to the
darker tones in "Finding Nemo," "Shark Tale" is vibrant with bright, tropical colors, penetrating even the darkest of
depths and making the sinister characters less menacing. Using a state-of-the-art technique called 'global
illumination,' the animators were able to harness more natural lighting, particularly between surfaces, that has never
been seen in animation. And it really works in illuminating and rounding out such scenes as Don Lino and sons at dinner
with a warm glow.
These days, successful animated films are those that are able to find balance between simple storytelling and
characters children can follow with hidden complexities and humor that adults can appreciate. It's not an easy
task, but one that DreamWorks has had difficulty with on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, "Shark Tale" is one of
those films that struggles to find its own identity, relying on stereotypes for characters, adult laden content, and
archaic film references to connect with its audience. And it just doesn't work. Just like the great white
vegetarian in the film, Lenny, DreamWorks needs to think out of the box, stop trying to be something they're not,
and embrace their own individuality. Only then will they have a tale worth telling.