Every year when Oscar nominations are announced, there are bound to be some serious snubs and surprises—especially in the Animated Feature category. Who could forget the joy when the Academy nominated Shaun the Sheep Movie in 2015, or the utter shock when they excluded Tangled in 2010? However, no Animated Feature announcement left industry insiders scratching their heads like when the 2004 nominees were The Incredibles, Shrek 2, and…Shark Tale?
It certainly threw me for a loop when I discovered this, and it took me a few minutes to make sure I was reading the list correctly. But there it is: the Oscar-nominated feature film…Shark Tale. Although the film was certainly a financial success ($300 million+ worldwide), its critical reception was more on the…shall we say…negative side. And deservedly so.
Shark Tale revolves around a fish named Oscar (Will Smith), who works in a whale wash in a reef that uncomfortably resembles Times Square in New York City, complete with billboards full of fish puns (Coral Cola, Old Wavy, etc.). When Oscar fails to repay his debts to his boss Sykes (played, unfortunately, by Martin Scorsese), he is sent out to be eaten by the sharks that plague the area, led by Don Lino (Robert De Niro). Oscar lies and takes credit for the accidental death of Lino’s son Frankie (Michael Imperioli) by hand of an anchor, and uses his newfound popularity to live the high life. Complicating things, Lino’s other son Lenny (Jack Black), is a vegetarian shark who befriends Oscar after running away from home.
There are positive elements to Shark Tale. The animation is bright and colorful, and the contrast between the reef and the lifeless shark headquarters is nice. I was also a fan of the character Angie (Renee Zellweger). She is Oscar’s love interest throughout the movie, and the smartest character with the most heart. To be honest, I would rather see a movie all about her instead.
Unfortunately with Shark Tale the negatives far outweigh these positives. To begin with, the fact that the producers even thought to call it Shark Tale is strange; although, given the sheer prevalence of puns in the movie, it seems rather fitting. The writers seem to give the same amount of thought to the film’s characters who (aside from Angie) ride the line from annoying (Lenny), to despicable (Lino), to downright racist, as exemplified by Sykes’ Rastafarian henchmen Ernie and Bernie (Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug).
Worst of all is Oscar, whose sole purpose in the movie is to become rich and famous. At one point he bets on a racehorse with the money give him by Angie after selling a prized keepsake. Then he lies about slaying a shark so he can benefit from the fame it gets him. He also pays no attention to Angie as soon as he catches the attention of a gold-digging socialite named Lola (Angelina Jolie, whom the fish is uncomfortably modeled after). Sure, Oscar learns his lesson in the end, but only when it becomes perilous for him to continue lying any longer. He’s far from a likable protagonist, and I was annoyed every second he was on-screen.
The plot is equally annoying, on top of being misguided. Every aspect of the film that involves the sharks is meant to be a parody of The Godfather, complete with De Niro’s casting as the mob boss. This being aimed squarely at children, it puzzles me that the filmmakers would want to pay heavy homage to an R rated film their target audience would not have seen? Maybe they wanted to appease the adults that would be taking their children to the movie, but the humor falls flat, as do the rest of the pop culture reference that appear throughout.
As for the animation, it is definitely apparent that DreamWorks put all its best animation efforts into its other 2004 release, Shrek 2. Whereas that film worked hard to break new ground in terms of realistic animation, the crew behind Shark Tale brought its work as far away from realism as possible—even the characters look like plastic. The cartoony look of the film could have worked to its advantage, given how focused the writing team was on the humor, but the downside is that Shrek 2 also placed much emphasis on its humor while having stellar animation. That, and the fish faces are downright creepy to look at—almost a bit too human-like.
Overall, this film carries a cast of unlikable cast of characters (save one), a story that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, and animation that is far below what DreamWorks has proven they can do. Shark Tale is the first legitimate critical failure that the company encountered, and it is an early indicator of some of the other pop-culture blunders it would eventually produce.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes