“Shark Tale” might be advertised as coming from the makers of “Shrek,” but as it turns out, a mob of great whites is no match for one big green ogre. “Shrek” and its sequel were both wonderfully imaginative movies, filled with delightful characters, clever gags and shrewd in-jokes. By contrast this “Tale,” written by neophyte Rob Letterman (who also co-directed) and Michael J. Wilson (who co-wrote “Ice Age” and soloed on the Jackie Chan flop “The Tuxedo”) offers a stale mob-centered story with all the wit of “Analyze That,” limp dialogue, and characters that, with but a single exception, are almost immediately forgettable. It joins the rest of DreamWorks’ non-“Shrek” animated efforts in being good-looking on the surface but empty inside.
It’s the conceit of the screenplay that the bustling urban area called the Reef (a metropolis that’s depicted as a waterlogged Times Square, complete with endless reams of outdoor advertising) is continually threatened by the shark mafia headed by Don Lino (Robert De Niro, as unamusing in his stentorian delivery as he is in most of his comedy roles), who’s planning to turn power over to his sons Frankie (Michael Imperioli, fairly nondescript) and Lenny (Jack Black, doing a mildly nasal voice that’s probably intended to be as endearing as Mike Myer’s burr as Shrek, but registers as more irritating than charming). Unfortunately, Lenny is a totally atypical shark, meek and given to helping other undersea critters rather than eating them–he’s even a vegetarian. Lino orders Frankie to toughen his brother up, but by accident they happen upon Oscar (Will Smith, whose hip-hop brotha routine grows really tiresome fast), a fast-talking con-fish who’s being disposed of by his mob-connected boss at the Whale Wash, puffer-fish Sykes (vocalized in amusingly shrill tones by motor-mouthed Martin Scorsese–the director easily outperforms all the actors in this instance) for failing to pay his debts. In the ensuing melee, Frankie is killed by a falling anchor, but Oscar–one of those supposedly lovable rogues who tests your patience every time he opens his mouth–takes credit for his removal and becomes a self-proclaimed hero, the Shark Slayer. (He also becomes the focus of a romantic rivalry between Angie, the clerk at the Wash who’s always loved him, and a femme fatale called Lola. Unfortunately, both these female characters are uninteresting, and neither Renee Zellweger, who plays the former, or Angelina Jolie, who voices the latter, makes much of an impression.) Lenny finds out about the lie and plots to get what he wants–freedom from his father’s expectations–by partnering up with the little fellow: he’ll pretend to be “killed” by Oscar if, in turn, Oscar will help him go undercover as a dolphin at the Whale Wash. Everything seems to go well enough until the plot unravels at a summit meeting between Oscar and Lino that’s entirely too reminiscent of the similar climax of “Analyze This.” The picture then segues into its all-too-predictable message about how the various underseas species should just learn to get along.
The animation team are the only heroes of “Shark Tale.” Though the visuals lack the magic of the “Shrek” pictures or Pixar’s Disney efforts, they’re certainly professional. It’s a pity they’re not supported by any wit and imagination on the narrative side. And the starry cast hardly invigorates things. Most are either annoying (like the incessantly perky Smith) or oddly dull (even Peter Falk as an old mob shark). Scorsese is the only one who injects any real vitality into the mix, which is probably why Sykes, a minor figure at best, is given so much screen time. At least the makers knew where the project’s solitary strength lay.
But that’s hardly enough. If you’re looking to go under the sea in animation form, you’d be well advised to stick with “The Little Mermaid” for the conventional, hand-drawn variety and “Finding Nemo” in the computer-generated category. It appears that “Shark Tale” works better as a soup than a movie.