- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

The new CGI feature “Shark Tale” packs the same watery visuals, sly banter and movie-star voice-overs that made “Finding Nemo” a cross-generational smash. That Pixar marvel did more than dazzle our senses. It gave us real human drama — who cares if that drama concerned talking fish?

“Shark Tale” never rises to meet “Nemo’s” artistic challenge. It contents itself with deftly paced humor laced with enough movie references to keep the adults chuckling.

That used to be all a parent could ask for in a kiddie film.

Then along came “Nemo” and the “Shrek” franchise. Seen through that technicolor prism, “Shark Tale” qualifies as a letdown.

The film presents a stunning undersea metropolis, one which shuts down completely whenever a shark swims close to its borders.

Flighty Oscar (Will Smith) is a regular Joe Fish who dreams of being rich and famous while goofing off at the local Whale Wash.

His fish life doesn’t seem so bad to us. He’s got a steady job, and the Whale Wash receptionist (Renee Zellweger) clearly adores him.

Oscar takes advantage of said crush by letting her pay off a debt he owes his boss, Sykes (Martin Scorsese, delivering a wickedly funny vocal turn).

A series of convoluted events leads Oscar to first blow the money and then get chased by Frankie (Michael Imperioli) and Lenny (Jack Black), a pair of sharks whose father is mafia kingfish Don Lino (Robert De Niro).

Lenny isn’t your typical shark. He’s a vegetarian. Frankie, on the other hand, is a killing machine.

Oscar miraculously survives when an anchor drops and stuns Frankie. Oscar spins the accident into a whopper of a fish tale — he single-handedly vanquished the mighty shark.

A shark slayer is born.

Oscar’s gills are popping up on every magazine cover and television show, particularly the local news, featuring Katie Current. (Yes, that’s Katie Couric’s voice.)

Fame quickly goes to Oscar’s fish head, but he lends a sympathetic ear to Lenny, who feels like an outcast from his family. What kind of a shark doesn’t tear into meat and love terrorizing anyone who comes his way? Unfortunately, the Oscar-Lenny dynamic falls flat, leaving us to chuckle at Mr. Smith’s vivid wordplay.

The actor, rediscovering his inner Fresh Prince, applies maximum charm to the project, but the constant hip-hop lingo gets tiresome. Given the long shelf life of these family-friendly films, the jargon may grow stale long before the film stops amusing the young ones.

Mr. De Niro finds a new medium for his late-blooming comedy chops as the mafia kingfish, but Angelina Jolie can’t breathe life into her threadbare role as the fish fatale.

Screenwriters Michael J. Wilson and Rob Letterman deftly weave some core life lessons into their narrative, but their story is so dense and recycled that preteens will yawn right past much of it.

“Shark Tale,” like every other computer-animated yarn before it, clearly required massive amounts of artistry. If only the average sitcom packed as many gags per minute as presented here.

Still, we expect more from this fledgling medium than “Shark Tale” can deliver.

***

TITLE: “Shark Tale”

RATING: PG (mild violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron and Rob Letterman. Screenplay by Michael J. Wilson and Mr. Letterman. Executive-produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sharktale.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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