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The Reef

Wonderworld Studios/Digiart Productions (July 7 2006), Weinstein Company/Genius Products (October 9 2007), single disc, 77 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 open matte negative ratio, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated G, Retail: $19.95

Storyboard:

A little orange fish loses his parents but finds a friend on his eventful journey in which he comes up against a bunch of stereotypical shark adversaries. Yep, it’s Finding Nemo-meets-Shark Tale, just as we all suspected, but The Reef is surprisingly also a little bit more than just that…

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The Sweatbox Review:

Originally entitled Shark Bait, the logo for that release said it all: with its fin motif buried within the stylised, wavy text, it wasn’t a million miles off the treatment for DreamWorks’ Shark Tale (itself at one time called Shark Slayer) and quickly gathered attention around the web, for all the wrong reasons. That the poster, featuring as it did a pair of small fish under the supposedly hungry gaze of a giant shark, was a carbon copy of an cast poster for Pixar’s Finding Nemo, didn’t help things either, and the movie was soon being ridiculed for being what it apparently was: a rip-off.

Perhaps because potential distributors didn’t want to have to deal with the negative publicity or the heat from much bigger fishes Disney and DreamWorks, Shark Bait didn’t hook a deal in the US and it was left to fend for itself in international waters. The movie underwent a title change to The Reef in the UK and it has finally come full circle, back to the US under this new title. The logo still retains the Shark Tale look, and they may as well have added a “Finding” to the beginning of the new title since any and all similarities between DreamWorks’ movie and Pixar’s Nemo must have been well and truly intended, for probable commercial and audience recognition reasons.

Seemingly made by a consortium of computer animation companies, mainly in South Korea, The Reef boasts but one name in its crew line up that may ring any bells. It’s produced by Mark Dippé, a man who really made waves – as did Steve “Spaz” Williams – at Industrial Light And Magic, being primarily responsible for the amazing and pioneering work done on the effects for the James Cameron movies The Abyss and Terminator 2.

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Unlike Spaz, who famously brought Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs to life before taking his time to go on to helm his own feature, the highly enjoyable The Wild, Dippé jumped from ILM fairly early, into a strange and chequered career. He directed the messy feature version of Spawn in 1997, before jumping into a couple of effects-heavy television comedies for Disney, and back to the big screen for the bonkers Frankenfish (2004) and the upcoming direct-to-video threequel Garfield Gets Real. Throughout this spotty directorial career, he’s remained in touch with his flair for animation projects, producing the little seen CG pictures Alexander The Great (2006), Saint Anthony and The Three Musketeers (both 2007). Quite why he remains involved in some of these decidedly sub-par ventures is a mystery given the groundbreaking brilliance he was once a champion of.

Of the other names involved, it falls to the cast to prop up the poster. Director John Fox can only count episodes of Captain Simian And The Space Monkeys as previous directorial experience, though he’s a long serving storyboard artist on animated shows that take in everything from Disney comedies to Marvel adventures. Co-director Howard E Baker has an equal sporadic résumé, from animating on Disney’s Hercules, to directing episodes of MTV’s Aeon Flux, and working on Rugrats (for TV and film) and Ren & Stimpy. His next projects include the upcoming Jim Henson Company/Weinstein Unstable Fables productions of The Three Pigs, Goldilocks And The Three Bears and Tortoise And The Hare.

Presumably working with the Weinstein Company on those – it has to be said – fun sounding outings explains the tie in and why we’re finally seeing The Reef on DVD more than a year after it was completed. And, surprisingly perhaps, it does actually deserve a release. It’s unfortunate that comparisons – mostly with Nemo as it turns out – are inescapable, as The Reef is well directed and has occasional flashes of genuinely good animation.

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But it is hard to shake Finding Nemo from one’s mind in the first half of the film, and Shark Tale from the second, as all the elements here seem to have been lifted lock, stock and barrel. Suspenseful opening in which a little orange fish loses a parent (actually, both of them here)? Check. The dashing through the waves and playful friendships between young, school age fish? Check again, with same vibe as Pixar’s characters and a copycat music score right down to sharp strings and guitars. Throughout The Reef, in addition to the obviously quoted films, I also noted nods – intended or not – to The Incredible Mr Limpet and The Little Mermaid.

However, most bizarrely, and against better judgement, I just didn’t find The Reef to be that offensive. It certainly isn’t as tiring, noisy or dull as some of the more major animated pictures of the past couple of years, and this in the end I put down to the characters. On looking at the cover, one may shiver at the mention of serial cartoon vocalists Freddie Prinze Jnr, Andy Dick and Rob Schneider – usually the kiss of death in any animated cast list – but truth be told they all put in decent work here, particularly Schneider, who I usually don’t have much time for, but who brings to life a variety of personalities (I counted nine voice credits), none of which sounded repetitive. Also in the line-up are Spinal Tarp’s Fran Drescher, Gimli himself, John Rhys Davies, and Evan Rachel Wood, a young actress who hasn’t quite broken through into the mainstream and won’t if she just keeps on doing voiceovers and overblown oddities like the recent Beatles musical Across The Universe. They all pretty much just get on and do their thing, highlighting a fun voice here and there that brings instant personality to their characters.

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Likewise, while there honestly isn’t much to go ga-ga over in the visuals, there’s nothing to really cry about either. The water effects and character animation are understandably not going to be on a par with Pixar or DreamWorks, but I have to admit that some of the designs were just as fun as some in those companies’ more accomplished movies. Villain of the piece Troy is especially well modelled and while the writing is derivative of Nemo and Shark Tale, it also has some good lines of its own (“Hey, look at these mussels!”) and once the opening has been established we seem to move more away from Nemo waters and swim more into Shark Tale depths, but without the over-commercialism from that film, which frankly left a sour taste, at least in this reviewer’s mouth.

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A pick-up for theatres would have been a mistake – The Reef certainly isn’t big screen quality – but as a direct-to-video acquisition, it’s perfectly placed – perhaps even better, so that the qualities it does have will come over more as a pleasant surprise rather than blowing up its lower budget to huge proportions, only to its detriment. The DTV route might also be playing to market strengths; I doubt any American distributor would want to have messed with the kind of negative feedback that greeted the film on international release, nor with the flack from the combined heat of the watchful eyes of Pixar and DreamWorks’ legions of fans and perhaps the companies themselves.

So what am I saying? Well, as much as I wanted to dismiss The Reef, I found I just couldn’t actively ‘dislike’ it. It’s simply not a bad movie, the way the 1990s saw a glut of terrible Beauty And The Beast wannabes that were interminable to sit through. Remember those Disney knock-offs that would appear in bargain basement bins just prior to such films as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin coming to theater screens? Well, truth be told, The Reef never sinks as low as those disowned orphans either.

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On the other hand, perhaps I’m sounding too lenient, and as much as I didn’t hate The Reef, I must point out that for all the good work in the movie’s backgrounds, the majority of the character animation is pretty uninspired, even if it is never as stiff as the dreaded video game look. On the flip side, some of the supporting characters have some nicely executed business and overall it’s certainly much more watchable than the excruciating Happily N’Ever After, to pick a similarly independent outing. Despite its plum-pickings, the story itself floats away every now and then, leaving the film to coast on its characters. Luckily, these fish are amiable enough and there’s always something amusing just around the corner, like the fashion conscious duo or the Ninja duelling turtle.

It never seeks to preach either: there’s a possible hint of a pollution message early on, but it doesn’t go further than being a minor side issue, and at the other end of the gamut the fart jokes have been kept to the bare minimum of two quick spots, with the first one actually well placed and funny. Sequences do come and go without much meaning or interconnection, however, and when the movie has to deliver its story or emotional moments, The Reef fails to hook us in completely. A jellyfish run ritual, in a preparing for battle montage sequence, only reminds of Nemo again, even if the visuals do in fact compare somewhat favorably.

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The Reef’s major mark against it is a resulting episodic nature, making it seem much longer than its 77 minutes. But it’s relatively harmless, fair entertainment for what it is and, given the choice between screening it again over some of the other, bigger CG rackets of late (or the Weinstein’s own Doogal fiasco, for instance!), I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself running The Reef again for younger visitors or curious Nemo/Shark Tale fans.

Is This Thing Loaded?

The disc kicks off with previews for the Genius DTV Casper’s Scare School (which goes some way to showing off just how bad The Reef’s animation could have been!) and other Weinstein Company animated movies: the enjoyable Arthur And The Invisibles and the atrocious Doogal, for which my advice, as always, is to skip this awful re-dubbed mess and pick up the original The Magic Roundabout 2-disc edition from the UK.

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For a fairly derivative movie that tanked around the globe and only comes to the US by way of DVD, The Reef gets a pretty decent showing here, with an unexpected full-length Audio Commentary from the film’s director Howard Baker and only other big name producer, the aforementioned Mark Dippé, who carries most of the conversation. He mentions the project’s roots as the antidote to his live-action monster movie Frankenfish that first brought the team together in 2003, and progressively attempts to explain story choices. It’s inconceivable that the crew, and at least Dippé, didn’t see either Finding Nemo or Shark Tale in 2003 and 2004 respectively, and so the complete avoidance aside from their production company names feels like the blinkers have been put on. The DreamWorks movie does get one passing reference, but it’s more about the different way the fish were depicted than anything else, as does Mr Limpet, which proved to be influential, though a fleetingly glimpsed Nemo Dory clone passes totally un-remarked upon.

I’d have much preferred a direct response to the copy-cat claims rather than the evasion tactics employed here, but apart from this approach, it’s a good discussion, maybe with a few gaps but pretty consistent throughout. The chat also gets technical from time to time to be baffling enough as to why such obviously intelligent people would end up making such a so-so picture similar to others when their work would not have been as dismissed if it had at least been wholly original.

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At one point, Dippé even almost shoots himself in the foot by bringing up one glaring plot hole that doesn’t do his movie’s plot foundations any favors. The Reef’s origins as a direct-to-video project that found a niche for theatrical distribution (c’mon guys, from people that saw potential Nemo numbers) is touched on, as well as the remastering process that was needed to achieve that aim. What isn’t labored upon – to their credit – is the tight time schedule and low budget constraints that the film was completed within, which explains some of the shortcomings, and also how they were able to pull off what they did achieve.

A Storyboard Gallery goes the way of most CG features – even those from the big boys – and plays up just how much better these things look traditionally hand drawn. CG has a place, and the likes of Ratatouille certainly proves that it can work in only helping bring a compelling narrative to life, but I don’t think I’m the only one suffering talking animal burnout. Some of the work reminded me of A-Film’s vastly underrated Help! I’m A Fish – a highly recommended option should any of you get the chance of seeing. The boards here – I counted around one hundred and twenty – zip through the movie in chronological order and don’t reveal anything groundbreaking, but there are a handful that stand out.

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An international Theatrical Trailer rounds out the package, which plays as looking quite fun even if it all feels eerily familiar (indeed, the tagline in some territories overseas was a mystifying “the adventure continues”). The menus are good value too and are presented, as with the trailer that unwittingly reveals aspects on the image ratio which are further explored below, in anamorphic 16×9.

Case Study:

Along with the welcome commentary track, The Reef’s packaging maintains the suggestion of a good value release by way of a glossy embossed slipcover (at least on initial printings) which practically replicates the cover art underneath save for differences in the UPC code. Both the slip and the sleeve highlight a quote from, and indicate that The Reef is a Film Advisory Board Inc. Award Winner, a seal of approval that graces most of the Weinstein animated releases and apparently doesn’t account for much when rumors abound that the seal is pretty easily endorsed for the right sponsors. The cover forgoes the poster image with the big shark coming up on little fish Pi and Cordelia perhaps to further break away from a similar Nemo poster campaign, instead settling for bright character renderings, which come repeated on the disc’s colorful art. There are no inserts or promotions of any kind inside the case, which is one of those ones with the extra security tabs on the sides that seem only to make it harder for little kids to get to the disc.

Ink And Paint:

On reading the “this film has been modified to fit your screen” notice on the back of the sleeve, I couldn’t believe, in this day and age, that a movie destined for theaters and even as a DTV pickup, could be created and formatted to the standard 1.33 ratio instead of the native widescreen aspect of 1.78:1, and was initially disappointed when I realised The Reef was only available on DVD in this way. It looked like I was going to have to sit through sub-par animation and have the frame cropped to unpleasantly tight dimensions. However, I immediately questioned things when the movie started and the framing clearly had enough headroom to withstand a clip top and bottom, with the sides not being particularly tight either. Also, suspiciously, Weinstein/Genius are usually good enough to at least provide us with original ratios on their releases, whatever the quality of the films themselves, so I felt something was awry, only confirmed by the presence of true 16×9 menus.

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So I tried cropping the 1.33 image by blowing it up to the 1.78 dimensions of my projector and sure enough the framing looked fine. My later checking of the theatrical trailer confirmed the open matte nature of the film’s transfer – the 16×9 amamorphic preview’s framing was exactly identical to how the movie image looked blown up to widescreen display proportions. Although there’s no excuse for the lack of anamorphic enhancement, this is essentially the best of both worlds and, since this was a distribution pick-up, probably all that was supplied to Weinstein/Genius. Since my toying around confirmed the feature’s transfer to be open matte (basically the same as non-anamorphic letterbox), I blew up the image to screen The Reef this way, and as a solid digital transfer it withstood this pretty decently, remaining sharp enough and with no adverse viewing effects.

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Scratch Tracks:

The Reef comes to disc with a mix that is as proficient as one would expect for such a production. While the movie doesn’t have the flashiest of scores (Christopher Lennertz’ music is a mixture of James Horner, Thomas Newman and standard sounds that are evocative of other water-logged movies), it’s well recorded and reproduced here. Though it seems to be a combination of real acoustic instruments and orchestral samples, it never sounds too economical and is as fully rounded as an animated theatrical score should be. The voices come to the fore but don’t sound overly pushed forward, nesting in the track appropriately, pleasantly letting the vocals be heard while the music and effects do their jobs. The Foleys are as involved as they need to be, and while this isn’t going to set off any home theater fireworks, it’s not a bad little track. Hearing Impaired English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

Final Cut:

Though it swims through Finding Nemo’s crystal clear blue waters and dips itself in Shark Tale’s pool, The Reef just isn’t as polluted as it could have been. The environmental message, if it’s even intended to be there, isn’t rammed down our throats the way it was so clumsily in Happy Feet, and essentially the film is a piece of inoffensive puff that’s major fishy element will forever be finding itself compared to two much bigger or better films. The Reef was never going to win any major awards, and I very much doubt it was ever intended to do anything other than to make quick money off the back of the Nemo craze, which it probably will given its fairly low list price (and even cheaper online), and younger audiences might well be hooked. It also, at the very least, demonstrates the growing abilities of independent companies able to make these kinds of films outside of the big US studio system. And in itself, that’s some-fin.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

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