The fish aren’t fresh in “Shark Tale.” In the era when, with “Finding Nemo” and “SpongeBob Square Pants,” it has seemed all but impossible to miss with underwater cartoon fare, DreamWorks’ latest inhouse animated effort finds a way to do just that by basing almost all its ideas on old movies. Built-in kid audience and the first-rate cast will assure some good initial returns, but the odor around this one will result in the wrong kind of B.O. for what was obviously intended as a blockbuster follow-up to the studio’s summer smash “Shrek 2.”
Anyone who felt there was a bit too much product placement and cinematic in-joking in “Shrek 2” will recoil at this crass outing, the setting of which looks like a waterlogged version of Times Square or CityWalk.
Overfamiliarity extends to the story, jokes and music, most of which reference popular entertainment of about 30 years ago. The heavily commercial and uncharming environs known as the Reef are under siege by Great White sharks headed by the godfather himself, Don Lino (Robert De Niro). Lino, whose headquarters are in the ruins of the Titanic, has one son, Frankie (Michael Imperioli), who’s a proper goodfella, but another, Lenny (Jack Black), who these days would be considered a girlie-shark; in a prominent idea straight out of “Nemo,” Lenny is a vegetarian and just plain “different,” far too sensitive for a dad like Lino.
One shark mob subordinate is Sykes (Martin Scorsese), a puffer fish who operates a Reef whale wash where raucous dreamer Oscar (Will Smith) works. Physically unprepossessing and so full of hot air he should be a puffer fish too, Oscar tries to romance sweet co-worker Angie (Renee Zellweger) when he’s not spinning his grandiose plans he hopes will make him a “somebody.”
But just as accidentally as Dorothy became a witch killer in “The Wizard of Oz,” little Oscar becomes reknowned as the “Shark Slayer” when inaccurate word gets out that he single-handedly dispatched No. 1 son Frankie. Raucously welcomed back at the Reef, Oscar embraces his new-found celebrity and is tempted by the uptown sweetlife and favors offered by temptress Lola (Angelina Jolie).
Climax emerges as pic’s best scene, with Don Lino presiding over a mob “sit-down” that will decide the fate of Oscar, Lenny and the rest. Standard toon message of tolerance for all winds things up on a note no more surprising than anything that’s preceded it.
Main accomplishment of the script by Michael J. Wilson (“Ice Age”) and Rob Letterman is that someone finally found a way to merge elements of two of the biggest hits of the ’70s, “The Godfather” and “Jaws,” into one story, with a dash of “Car Wash” thrown in for good measure. Letterman co-directed with Vicky Jenson, one of the directors of “Shrek,” and Bibo Bergeron (“The Road to El Dorado”), with visual clarity but little of the wit and imagination that graces the most popular contempo animated films.
As voiced by Smith, Oscar’s hyper-active, jive-talking hustler proves a tiresomely familiar figure, and Zellweger’s love interest is entirely uninteresting. Shark dialogue has more character, with De Niro’s delivery nicely matching facial expressions for Lino. Curiously, the most amusing vocal performance may come from De Niro’s old cohort Scorsese, who machine guns his dialogue and whose puffer fish is even drawn with the director’s trademark thick eyebrows.
With the combination of mobster characters and heavily R&B, hip-hop and disco/soul tune orientation of the soundtrack, pic has a more streetwise feel than most animated fare, which is not to say that it has street smarts.