It takes zero seconds for Shark Tale to be the worst DreamWorks animated film I’ve ever seen. To find something worse you’d have to watch one of those Disney knock-offs that you pass over on Netflix with a cold shudder, or one of those YouTube-only CG student projects, or a film by Illumination. I’m going to scoop out its anchovy-sized heart and squeeze out the grease between my fingers before feeding it to my cat. Why so cruel? Like an unwanted but persistent friend asking for money despite having a notorious gambling problem, the film is so irresponsible that it no longer deserves pity. It’s a sweet movie for kids that contains nothing but sex puns and poverty shaming and jive. I don’t have to treat it like an animated film: since its humor and references decide to play with the big boys, I’m going to remind it how stupid it looks waltzing into the Copacabana with Cheeto fingers and a big book of fish puns. It may riff on Finding Nemo for the ads, but it aspires to remind us more of The Godfather, which it could not do for the target audience of the concept, or without insulting people who like good movies. Can you hurt a film as monolithic as The Godfather? DreamWorks gives it their all. My only consolation is that perhaps when I’m through, Shark Tale will be sleeping with the fishes.
The comedy is never better than this – a pass at something you’ve heard before, whether a catchphrase, a brand placed in full-view (Coca Cola and Krispy Kreme appear, without even a fish pun to dilute their purpose), or a pop culture drive-by shooting. An early scene casts Robert De Niro as a shark in a room with Martin Scorsese as the pufferfish who has to pay security to the loan sharks (get it? You’ll have 437,862 more chances). Violin music plays softly in the background, before an octopus DJ accidentally resets the phonograph to “Baby Got Back" ("I Like Big Butts”). Are those on the same record?
Oh, perhaps you were waiting for me to ask desperately why De Niro would nail himself to such a project? Clearly you haven’t heard that De Niro’s been on a diet from quality since all that weight he gained for Raging Bull. If he doesn’t get to parody himself while screwing around with cheerleaders as a dirty grandpa, or sit in a recording booth somewhere making fun of movies he hasn’t ruined yet, he doesn’t take the check.
The attempts at humor in Shark Tale aren’t the worst of it, because they’re just not that important to the film. Shark Tale seems singularly intent on not being funny, instead striving more for making me feel terrible. It feels like a personal affront to watch this film, one that I am physically unable to watch without pausing every ten minutes and writing some of this review piecemeal as an emotional exorcism, before I can stand a few minutes more.
What am I talking about? It’s just a movie about cartoon fish, right? Will Smith and Jack Black headline and these guys are likeable even when they’re terrible. If you haven’t seen Shark Tale, it’s hard to imagine its particular heart-squirming putrefaction that purposely makes you sad to be human, somehow, even being about fish. This isn’t a film for misanthropists: it’s a film that creates them.
So to begin with (and this is what I mean by its quality hitting zero in as many seconds) Shark Tale takes place in a drab and depressing world: the entire film looks like the sewer pipe scenes in other fish films. The colors are mildewy, like the whole universe is made of rust and algae. The film is stuffed to the gills with slime and feces and dust, all effects that I’m sure were impressive in 2004. But they contribute to Shark Tale feeling so uneasy, which is its primary emotion, as though the film is as devoted to exploring it as Finding Nemo is devoted to wonderment.
Uneasiness becomes its true artform when you see the character designs, the worst I can ever think of seeing in a children’s movie. Forget the fact that the lips never sync up except by accident, owing to Will Smith talking so much that probability occasionally sides with him. The fish people in Shark Tale are ugly. Their human faces grimace and skew into the camera, each individual tooth sneering during a self-righteous rap session or verbal jacking off. Their lips are huge and pouty and protrude from their faces like mythic half-breeds, like the old legends of seeing a wise man’s face on a crow or a trout. Except it’s not a wise man it’s, you know, Will Smith, riffing on MC Hammer to eight-year-olds.
But you should never judge a book by its cover, no matter how malformed and uncanny it is. The fish in Shark Tale are most ugly not because of their voices or their faces, but because of their natures.
Oscar (Smith) is a self-obsessed lay-about with a gambling addiction who borrows so much money from the mob that they’re going to ice him if he doesn’t fork over five thousand clams (this is how the movie talks). He conveniently strikes pity when his friend Angie (Renée Zellweger) gifts him her grandmother’s pink pearl, after a hearty moral about big adventures starting small that we never go back to. I wouldn’t think that a movie about cartoon fish would be much of a reservoir for sociology of any kind, but Angie really is one of the most insulting portrayals of a girlfriend I’ve ever seen. Her entire purpose for existing is to seek Oscar’s approval without receiving even a hint of reciprocation, or having even one good trait of Oscar’s to justify her affection. Oscar openly macks on a sexy gold-digging tropical fish (Angelina Jolie) and calls Angie his “friend,” while the song “Gold Digger” plays, if you didn’t get it already. The movie is so unrepentantly on the side of Oscar’s excesses that an early conceit – Oscar takes the pearl and immediately makes a losing bet with it for no reason – never teaches Oscar or Angie anything about each other because other things intervene and we never bring it up again. Shark Tale exchanges many forms of currency, but morality is never one of them.
The film doesn’t deal in reality either: Shark Tale takes place underwater only as the lure for its con on other kids’ movies. Its water has no physicality, no weight or color or size. There are no currents or tides. And the fish are constantly doing things that you can’t do underwater. They have electricity and spray-paint and paper. They smoke and play with boomboxes and eat hot food and use urinals and doors and bedsheets and bling. A civilization of fish has a sushi restaurant. Someone farts and it does become a bubble before popping in someone’s face, but other than that the water never materializes. Oscar sees someone fall and remarks, “Who in the halibut trips underwater?” This is the closest DreamWorks comes to making of their laziness any sense of style. In place of consistency, which you need for immersion, they opt for irony, which cannot emerge out of a statement that is also a pun. You can’t sell out ironically: you can’t have the shameless sponsorship of Foodfight! while retaining the genre disposal of Shrek (this isn’t just why Shark Tale doesn’t work but why Shrek stopped working too after a few too many iterations off the finite curve of amiable stupidity).
Well then, what does Shark Tale sell instead? There’s definitely an urban market aspect. Shark Tale constantly refers to “white fish” as the folks that “can’t do it.” But as much as the film would like you to believe that it’s about race, Shark Tale is exquisitely, typically, white. Urbanity is just a reference polluting the film like all the other pop culture references among the unkempt ad-libbed dialogue and predictable early-00s soundtrack. As the pretense of cute animation is a contradiction in the middle of all the sexual advances and death threats, race-obsessed dialogue is meaningless in a fantasy world without races. It’s like the film wants us to treat the film as a commercial for the actors, like this is Will Smith and Jack Black, not fish with their voices.
Any of the film’s meaning is contradictive to its corporateness. Cheapness is its currency. In its humor this manifests as a shark swimming through a billboard for Jaws while humming the theme from Jaws for the fifth time in the film. In its emotions it manifests in character relationships so cynical that they do not occur so much as transact.
And really, isn’t that what this is all about? Shark Tale has no fish out of water, no character that can be identified with by anyone under thirty-five who doesn’t measure their debt in G’s. What father didn’t relate to Marlon the clownfish’s anxiety about being a good father; what child was confused by little Nemo’s anxiety about never making it back home? This is the basic level on which all animated films must function until we decide that they can be made for adults only. They must allow anyone safe passage into the hearts of their characters, whether it’s as forceful as literally casting parents and children, or in a way as organic and universal as a pure spirit of discovery (in The Iron Giant and Spirited Away, for instance). Shark Tale obsesses over its romantic relationships while offering no way in to its characters' hearts. In its place: song after song after song, Will Smith fish dancing to MC Hammer at the worst time, a main character that desires to have his life handed to him, and in the end learns to be content with his pathetic south side girlfriend and inherent douchiness.
Now here’s a question. How does Shark Tale assemble so many negative stereotypes, predictable jokes, and needlessly depressing plot contrivances and get nominated for best animated film at the Academy Awards? Does the Academy just auto-nominate every major studio film? This was a founding moment in my development as a young critic, in which I began to see not only that animation is not taken seriously, but that children aren’t either. Shark Tale doesn’t just reek of a lack of imagination: it actually consumes the imagination of others. I was young when I saw Shark Tale. It was the first time I ever heard "Baby Got Back." And it was the moment I realized that maybe, a movie made for me wasn't actually made for me, that I was a little fish being sold a movie about little fish being made by a big one. This was when I became aware that movies can be so, so un-magical.