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Shark Tale

DreamWorks Animation (October 1 2004), DreamWorks Home Entertainment (February 8 2005), single disc, 90 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $19.99

Storyboard:

Ostensibly a rip-off of the old Reluctant Dragon story, Shark Tale finds young fish Oscar (voiced by Will Smith) deep in dept. The party amphibian likes to show off and spread it around, so to speak, but now he’s up to his gills in trouble… trouble being Sykes (Martin Scorsese) and a repayment of mob money. On the other side of the pond, however, ashamed vegetarian shark Lenny (Jack Black) runs away from home and his father (Robert De Niro) – head of the “Family” – since he feels responsible for the death of his much wiser and tougher older brother, a real apple of his dad’s eye who was actually accidentally rubbed out when Oscar is taken away by Sykes’ jelly-fish henchmen to be “dealt with”. Naturally, being in the right place at the right time, Oscar takes credit for the shark-slaying, the result being that he arranges with Lenny a fake battle to prove his credentials and help Lenny disappear. All’s going well until Oscar’s girl Angie (Renée Zellweger) starts to suspect some fishy goings on, and especially takes a dislike to Lola (Angelina Jolie), a mysterious fin-fatale who seems to have landed Oscar hook, line and sinker…

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The Sweatbox Review:

After watching the visually poetic Bambi recently, and catching the spectacular adventures of The Incredibles, the sheer aggressiveness of the mass-market friendly and very commercially-minded animated comedy Shark Tale, DreamWorks Animation’s ninth feature (or only their fourth, if you’re counting on CGI fingers), sat a little uneasily with me. I’m also not quite sure what it says about the current state of movies when a film like Shark Tale winds up as the surprise (“surprise” being an understatement) third entry, behind DW’s own Shrek 2, in this year’s Academy Awards race either (a race eventually won by rival studio Pixar’s The Incredibles).

On the surface of things (and make no mistake… Shark Tale is all about surface, despite being set underwater), the film is enjoyable enough, though the constant hip-hop language and Smith’s jiggy persona gets a little irritating after a while. Movie and song references, as seems to be the norm with DreamWorks’ films, pepper the plot in a way that end up being as much as a distraction as they are fun to pick out. In a way, Shark Tale (which should really have been named Fish Tale since it’s more about Oscar than any of the sharks, including Lenny, or simply kept the original title SharkSlayer, which makes more sense) reminded me of the wishy washy-ness of Space Jam, in the blatant commercialism on display, and of Cool World in its frantic, confused and over packed pacing. Strangely, Shark Tale almost feels as a trailer for its own film and one is left wondering where the rest of it went! Thankfully, this also means it’s pretty short, and its 90 minutes (actually 80, cutting off the long end credit scroll, which does have some added fun touches) pass by quickly enough. Where the film does work is in the backgrounds and secondary character dialogue. The use of seahorses in an all-bets-are-on race is perhaps obvious but still loads of fun, the names of the participants even more so.

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That the story is weak is one thing; that it plays merely as an on-going series of scenes is another: any attempt to enthuse any real character or emotion is sidetracked in favor of playing up to the actors’ established popular identities. De Niro and Smith, making his animation debut after pulling out of Osmosis Jones a few years back, do their usual thang, while Martin Scorsese also scores a first by becoming the only Academy Award-nominated director to voice a fish in the same year! The best of the rest are the support characters (Black doesn’t do a lot for me, since he always seems to try a little too hard, and he’s the one thing about the upcoming King Kong remake that I’m worried about), with Jolie finding just the right mix of brooding glam and being the only one who seems to “act” in the movie.

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Of course, and as with most DreamWorks films, comparisons to the latest Pixar are inevitable, and here it has the unfortunate luck to be up against Finding Nemo, another underwater adventure. The two films couldn’t be further apart, however, with Nemo’s gentler but grander scale being replaced by basically an undersea version of the very world we live in: no need to be hiding from divers here when the fish can party in a wild ‘n’ wet take on New York City. They have desks, day jobs, apartments and money worries – hey, just like the rest of us – though it’s still a toss up as to whether this is an ingenious parody of life, or whether it was just the simpler route to take. The script packs these references in at every opportunity, so there’s plenty of time to sit and absorb all this if actually watching the film gets a bit mundane after a while. Shark Tale seems to float along happily on this series of references and homages rather than settle upon creating a truly original world or having characters that one can attach real emotional ties to. Still, at least they don’t linger too much on the obvious Jaws pastiches, which does provide one nice line about the shark’s “theme music”. It’s a little lazy of the filmmakers, in the way that the Scary Movie spoofs simply raised a laugh by setting up a scene with a similar iconic shot from the target film: presto – audience recognition equals easy laughter.

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It’s not all bad though: the animation is DreamWorks’ usual brand of attention to detail and plenty of brash color, all of which, for the most part, is very well animated, and perhaps the company’s most reminiscent of traditional animation so far (the very cartoony looking Madagascar – DW’s next – could redress this balance). The voices, most likely picked to bring instantly identifiable personality to characters that otherwise don’t have much, do the best they can with the material, which tries and tries to make itself interesting, but just can’t seem to rise above taking the easy route (though one fairly obscure gag seemingly picks the theme from Lambert The Sheepish Lion as its cue, Luca looks like a dead ringer for one of Ray Harryhausen’s creatures, and is Crazy Joe a nod to The Incredible Mr Limpet’s Crusty the Crab?).

There were many rumors of production problems in that certain Italian groups were worried about presenting “Mafia-type” stereotypes to young children, and who knows what effect this had on toning down the humor, but I doubt it had much knock-on in making the plot any weaker than it already was. The stereotypical issues also raise another point: many of them would have passed right by the supposed child audience and would have been intended for adults who remembered and watch such films and shows as The Godfather, GoodFellas and The Sopranos. But Shark Tale is perhaps too juvenile for that audience and too crude for the very young, so who knows where this gripe was truly aimed? Certainly the film falls between the two demographics, and doesn’t end up being particularly successful for either.

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However, Shark Tale has been a rather unexpected hit around the world, and did make that third spot at this year’s Oscars (“an Oscar for Oscar” did I hear the DWs marketing team scream out in joy?), so it must have something that I seem to be missing. It’s enjoyable enough – relying more, like Ice Age, on the hyped up big name performances than anything really witty in the script – but any film that has the audacity to basically end with the music video for the song that was out promoting the film (in this case Christina Aguilera’s re-take on Car Wash, see below) really doesn’t deserve the amount of award recognition it received.

Bright and breezy, I found Shark Tale to be more than a little disappointing, not least for the easy-jab script and crude humor (something that seems to be a DreamWorks staple at the moment, given how their TV comedy Father Of The Pride worked out). Fans of that cancelled show could do worse than look into this one, but let’s not hope the rumored sequel swims its way to the screen any time soon. For those who missed it, let’s just say that Shark Tale isn’t the best of the DreamWorks films – CGI or not, and its $160m take (far less than the final tallies for Shrek 2 and The Incredibles) is more down to DW’s hyper marketing than anything else). Though it’s technically competent, it sadly ends up as a movie that’s not a truly essential catch for your collections.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Shark Tale isn’t a movie screaming out for the warts ‘n’ all approach of a two-disc set, but even so this single disc from DreamWorks packs it with enough information for the adults and fun for the kids without going overboard with features. First up is a forced preview for Madagascar and the Wallace And Gromit movie. I’m no fan of forcing previews on the audience, especially since they are usually viewable from their own menu option and I would likely check them out separately. It’s nice to able to access the behind-the-scenes featurette for W&G that’s been doing the internet rounds, but still, forced previews are also a pain in that one has to sit through them time and time again when watching a disc (and especially in writing reviews), with the result that the viewer actually gets sick to death of whatever title is being promoted! At least Disney allows a flick of the menu button to skip the trailers and save them for later, while here we have to fast-forward through them. Argh!

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Onto the main menu, and New From DreamWorks Animation leads once again to the aforementioned five-minutes of previews for Madagascar and Wallace And Gromit. There are also the usual options for Subtitle and Audio set up, which is where you’ll find the full-length Filmmakers’ Commentary track. Participating are directors Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson and Rob Letterman, and their chat is warm and funny. Topics mentioned include alternate lines and plots, hidden jokes, and comments on fellow DreamWorkers’ contributions via extra gags and voices, as well as the blatant term of calling the Car Wash sequences a “video” as opposed to a required piece of storytelling! As usual, the lack of perspective can be a handicap in such discussions, but having three people on hand keeps things fascinating, even if the track does veer off into the overly technical sometimes and may not be to the average viewer’s interest. Animation fans will find quite a bit to keep them hooked, however, and there’s the usual barrage of production stories to keep an ear out for, but nothing on the film’s title change (even though there are still references to this in the film).

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The much-vaunted Club Oscar follows the footsteps of similar features on the Shrek DVDs by being an “added” ending, with new, exclusive-to-disc animation showing life after the movie has ended. As before, this added footage plays after the credit scroll of the main feature, or as an optional extra and, as before, the clip mainly concerns the characters of the movie frolicking around to established hit songs, in this case a spoof of Saturday Night Fever, where the fish disco dance to tracks at the whale wash. The primary vocal talent returns, but essentially this three-minute (plus 30-second credits) extra is more of the same, presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1, and animated up to the levels of the feature film itself. Good fun for a single viewing, but one can’t help hope that DreamWorks turns its attention to creating stand-alone shorts – a la Pixar – for their releases, rather than these “party time” final sequence scene extensions.

Get Your Groove On is Club Oscar’s own supplement, a “learn to dance like the cast” feature that highlights each individual character and teaches the viewer how to dance like them. An unidentified presenter, who one can only presume is Club Oscar choreographer Nadine “Hi-Hat” Colquhoun, takes us through the steps in the studio, either as a bunch of separate clips or as a play all option that adds an intro and warm-up, and runs around 17-minutes. While kids might get a kick out of learning the moves, there’s not too much here for adults, though recycled animation allows the cast to “join” them in the studio, which is fairly fun to see. Also in this section is a pointer to the included DVD-ROM printables, as well as a “meet the winners” page dedicated to those who won the Hewlett-Packard Shrek 2 Sweepstakes.

A nice touch is that the disc fires up into ROM mode the second it’s placed in a PC drive. Offering up a “main menu”, the choices are links to the Shark Tale website (which basically promotes the DVD right back at’cha, as well as some extras to swim through), the DreamWorks Kids site, which has games and features for all the DWs films, including a pretty cool wordsearch activity. The ink-intensive Shark Tale and Club Oscar printables round out the offerings, with a natural recommendation to use DreamWorks’ partner Hewlett-Packard products – ahh, company synergy! Getting away from the cynical, there IS a lot to be getting on with here, and it’s always welcome when a company chooses to bother with such added ROM value, even if it’s not up to the amazing standards set by DreamWorks themselves with their “Make A Movie” activity on the Spirit disc.

Back to the set-top bonuses, and keeping with the kid stuff is the DreamWorks Kids section, offering up links to Club Oscar again, plus alternate scene selections and another pointer to the DVD-ROM section. Must Sea Games is a selection of three set-top diversions: Disguise Lenny (a selection activity), Fish Eat Fish (educational fun on undersea life) and Place Your Bets!, which is possibly the most fun since there is an element of suspense. The player must “place a bet” (they missed a trick there, didn’t they, when it could have been the pun-heavy “plaice” your bets!) by choosing a sea horse they feel might win the race (using footage from the film). My first three choices won, but Fish Fingers let me down! In Rock The Reef, we’re offered Sykes’ Jukebox – basically another alternate chapter selection that links directly to the song sequences in the film, including, boringly for kids, three from the end credits. The jukebox isn’t even good for the lame Easter Egg to be found by nudging your remote selection left to highlight Sykes’ whale-shaped belt-buckle (it’s just some pages of “meet the characters” text).

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Better in the Rock The Reef section is the aforementioned Christina Aguilera music video for Car Wash, the film’s highlighted song. When I first heard this was being re-recorded for the film, I was hoping for some Shark Tale tie-in, such as re-worded lyrics, or even a title-change, such as Whale Wash or Carp Wash. Nope! All we get is the same old song, updated with a glossy studio production including the now obligatory rap, provided by Missy Elliot, which is the only link to the film. When the video debuted on the music channels, it was choc-full of animated versions of Christina and Missy, leading one to believe that special animation had been created, as is sometimes the case for songs promoting animated features. It was only, as mentioned above, when I saw the film itself that it became clear that the music video animation sequences had been lifted directly from the film’s finale – something that still screams “rip off” to me. However, at least in the video we are treated to a good view of Ms Aguilera’s own form of buoyancy, in a typically poured-into outfit which shows off her décolletage to no doubt desired effect. A fairly standard in-the-studio promo, the clip is helped along by some nice video effects, such as floating bubbles and a fast-cut style, and is presented in roughly 1.66:1 non-anamorphic letterboxed format, which seems to have been “stretched out” a little to gain the extra height – check out those tall bubbles! There’s no denying that Car Wash is one funky song (I couldn’t get it out of my head when released last fall, and I expect to be humming it for days after hearing it again here), and this four-minute video is a welcome addition to the disc, being the closest we get to any promotional material (trailers being, once again as usual, a no-show).

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Leaving the kids department, we’re into the Special Features proper, and first up is Rough Waters technical goofs, a couple of minutes of mis-renders that seem to appear more and more on CGI DVDs now that audiences are becoming more accustomed to the way these films are produced. Funniest is the Twisted Oscar, while Missing Oscar is just plain scary! The voice talent featurette Star Fish takes a welcomed look behind the microphone to push its all-famous cast, a feature that can sometimes be all too missing on such animation releases, when the vocals can be one of the most important aspects. Over the eleven-and-a-half minutes, we hear from all the principals involved, and they are careful to sidestep the “Mafia family” connotations that riled some groups, but it’s simply a joy to see De Niro and Scorsese in the recording studio together, bouncing their lines around.

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The Music Of Shark Tale covers the same kind of ground, but obviously more focused on the film’s eclectic soundtrack, with Christina Aquilera, among others, saying how “amped” she was to contribute (yeah, we had noticed the “ampage”)! The four-and-a-half minute clip ends with a brief push for the Shark Tale album, but there’s seemingly no room to speak about composer Hans Zimmer’s score for the film. The Fishified World Of Shark Tale is just what you might expect: a six-minute look at the designs in the feature and how they were adapted from real life and the mob influences on the story and characters, while Gigi The Whale is a joke outtake from a recording session, animated with the actor’s whale character; a fun, if random, extra that lasts just over a minute.

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The Tour You Can’t Reef-Use! stills gallery offers up seven “locations” that explore the character designs and concepts that built up in the creation of the film. It’s seeing art like this that really clues one in on exactly how much painstaking work goes into making an animated film, and the level of detail that must be created, especially on a hyperactive film such as Shark Tale, is amazing. These vast collections of grouped galleries offer up huge awards in that they allow for step-by-step analysis of the intricacies in the sketches and ideas that inspired the animators, with many of the paintings foreshadowing the final film frames to a startling degree.

Finally, there’s another link to the Filmmakers’ Commentary track, cast and crew biographies, plus additional Previews for other Universal-distributed fare: DreamWorks’ Shrek 2, plus Balto III: Wings Of Change, and another in the long, long line of Land Before Time sequels (which seem to have given up any numbering system). No teasers or trailers for Shark Tale are included, but have turned up on other DreamWorks releases.

Case Study:

A bog-standard black keepcase, with those annoying extra side tabs that could ruin your cover if any kid is too desperate to get to the disc, adorns the Shark Tale cover art. No insert or coupons are offered.

Ink And Paint:

A digital-to-digital disc, DreamWorks has once again pulled out the stops to deliver Shark Tale in a stunning animation transfer. Presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, the adventures of Oscar and co. certainly look good, even if the film doesn’t always measure up. Images are strong, colors are vibrant, and contrast balance is good on the whole. There isn’t the subtlety in the Shark Tale world that Finding Nemo achieved and likewise the video doesn’t have to handle those nuances of that Pixar film. Things are clean, identifiable and, as with most animation transfers these days, almost too clinically perfect.

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Scratch Tracks:

A wraparound Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track lifts the film up a notch or two, with a great mix that, even if one isn’t a fan of the hectic Shark Tale world, does do its job of fleshing it out extremely well. The 5.1 track is as alive as they come, with the standard 2.0 Surround equivalent being one of the most involved mixes I’ve heard for a while, if only on the more action oriented parts of the film I checked. French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 are also offered as dubs and subtitles.

Final Cut:

A frivolous but hardly heavyweight feature, Shark Tale is a bit of a frustration in that it could have been so much more. As it is, there’s some fun to be had with the characters and the mob movie references will keep adults fairly well entertained, but it does fall between having too much of those things that will pass over kids’ heads and trying to be too hip for its own good. It’s obviously aimed at the younger set, but the sometimes crude tone leaves the film a little bit of an enigma. Certainly it’s the most commercial and pop-culture influenced of any recent animated movie: the seven licensed logos (among many more not credited) and over 25 music tracks being a testament to that fact (and possibly some kind of record)! Enjoyable enough for its length, Shark Tale will provide hyper entertainment for kids, though could prove instantly forgettable for their parents. Fin.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

sharktale16.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

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