I have an embarrassing confession to make. Part of my brain has a knee-jerk skepticism about big animated films out of a stubborn conviction that they’re all the same. This animation-averse part of my psyche makes a lot of assumptions about animated films. It assumes they’re all loud, flashy, filled with inane pop songs and wall-to-wall pop-culture references, and generally involve superheroes, princesses, or anthropomorphized animals with unusual aspirations. You know the sort: cheetahs that want to become championship limbo dancers, or squirrels that want to pull off a daring heist, or walruses that are curious about pursuing careers as notary publics. Lastly, these big animated films generally make hundreds of millions of dollars internationally, whether or not anybody likes them. Like Marvel movies and other such monoliths, they’re almost too big to fail.
This conviction that all animated films are fundamentally the same is ridiculous, of course. There’s infinite variety in animation, a wonderful and diverse art form that encompasses everything from the homemade transgressions of Ralph Bakshi to Richard Linklater’s trippy explorations of the wonders and horrors of the human mind to Hayao Miyazaki’s surreal fairy tales. Yet it sure can feel like the really big animated movies, the ones that make billions of dollars and flood the culture with ancillary products and colonize children’s imaginations, feel suspiciously alike, especially those released by DreamWorks.
My belief that big non-Pixar animated movies are all the same is a massive generalization, and like most generalizations, it’s unfair and untrue at best, and obnoxious at worst. Yet it isn’t entirely unwarranted. When I assume all big animated movies are the same, and that they’re all hot garbage, I am thinking rather specifically about Shark Tale, the ninth highest grossing film of 2004, which made more than $350 million worldwide. Even more remarkably, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It says much about the extent to which animation has exploded in the last 10 years that Shark Tale could earn an Oscar nomination in 2004, while last year, even the rock-solid, extremely commercially successful Monsters University, from Pixar, the studio that pretty much owns that category, wasn’t even nominated.
Shark Tale epitomizes everything that’s bad about big-budget, mainstream animation, particularly its obsession with star-power. Movies like Aladdin and Shrek benefitted tremendously from the famous voices in their casts, but Shark Tale takes celebrity fetishization a step too far by featuring characters that don’t just boast the voices of some of the biggest movie stars in the world, they look and act like the celebrities voicing them as well.
On some level, this was a matter of maximizing an investment: Shark Tale was paying lavishly for a few days of Will Smith or Robert De Niro’s voice acting, so it might as well appropriate their images and histories as part of the deal. And it didn’t stop at Smith and De Niro; Jack Black, Renée Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Peter Falk, Vincent Pastore, and Katie Couric all voice marine-life versions of their public personas in Shark Tale. So the film’s protagonist is a bluestreak cleaner wrasse named Oscar who is also, on some level, Will Smith, or at least the filmmakers’ conception of him. This raises a pertinent question: Who is Will Smith?
For a man who’s been as famous as anyone can be in our society for more than a quarter-century, who has spent his entire adult life in the glare of the brightest spotlight, we know precious little about Smith. He’s a clean-cut, freshly scrubbed all-American icon of assimilation and upward mobility, and also a complete cipher. While still a teenager, Smith played a huge role in the mainstreaming of hip-hop before more or less abandoning the genre to become a television star, then a massive movie star and respected dramatic actor who’s been nominated for Academy Awards twice. At the same time, I have no idea who Smith really is, though the fascinating glimpses into his psyche provided by his flirtations with Scientology and his joint interviews with his son suggest that he’s insane.
Shark Tale doesn’t really know who Will Smith is, either, so it reduces him to his earliest, most facile incarnation. Shark Tale didn’t need Will Smith, world-conquering superstar, for the lead voice role; it only needed The Fresh Prince. Hell, it didn’t even need all of the Fresh Prince’s aspects—the ones who battled Mike Tyson, or bemoaned the lack of empathy habitually illustrated by parents. It didn’t even need the Fresh Prince of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. All it needed was The Fresh Prince from the opening credits sequence.
That was what the filmmakers behind Shark Tale signed up for. In their estimation, Will Smith wasn’t an eccentric, extremely talented, insanely rich and powerful superstar with an equally eccentric and unknowable family: He’s the fun rap guy who says things like, “Yo homes, smell you later” and wants to get jiggy with the bling-bling and all those other things the rapper guys are supposed to be into.
That’s insulting both to audiences and to Smith himself, who by the time Shark Tale was released was a lot more than a fun rap guy. Shark Tale has an ’80s exploitation movie’s conception of hip-hop—that it’s a fad the kids are into now, which can be crassly, crudely exploited for a quick buck. That might seem insane in 2004, considering what a cultural and commercial force hip-hop had been for decades, but watching Shark Tale and Bringing Down The House for this column made me realize that for a sizable percentage of the population, hip-hop never stopped being a fad, no matter how popular or influential it became. For people who never took the time to understand it, hip-hop was just a bewildering, impenetrable collection of slang and fashion, good for a guilty chuckle, but nothing more.
These are the people who made Shark Tale, which opens with Oscar addressing the camera directly while discussing the amenities of his “crib,” smiling as broadly as a cartoon bluestreak cleaner wrasse can possibly smile while referring to himself as a “superstar mack-daddy fish,” employing rap slang of roughly the same moldy vintage as “Yo homes, smell you later.”
Shark Tale’s shallow take on hip-hop culture extends to Oscar’s personality and dreams. Though we originally see him in what appears to be a deluxe penthouse deep below the sea, he is in fact, to use a phrase Shark Tale might employ, “fronting” in front of a billboard of a deluxe penthouse. Like his father before him, Oscar toils as a mere tongue-scrubber at an undersea whale-wash, but he nurses a noble dream of someday having a lot of money and being super-successful—you know, just like those rap guys do. He’s a dreamer prone to get-rich-quick schemes and blowing off work, much to the chagrin of Angie (Renée Zellweger), the girl-next-door angelfish who works with Oscar and nurses a massive crush on him.
The filmmakers took great pains to have the animal characters in Shark Tale look as much like the actors voicing them as possible, apparently out of a belief that the small, easily entertained children that are its target audience will lose their shit upon seeing a puffer fish that both talks like Martin Scorsese and boasts his caterpillar eyebrows. And when the kids see the telltale mole on the Robert De Niro-shark’s face? Fuhgeddaboutit! That’s what the mob people say in those movies, right?
This creepy desire to make funny animals out of things which should not be funny animals inevitably leads to sexualizing that which should not be sexualized. At a racetrack where Oscar squanders a large sum of money, his big talk attracts the attention of a femme-fatale lionfish named Lola (Angelina Jolie) dancing lasciviously to the Ludacris song “Gold Digger.” Just as Shark Tale reduces Smith to a generic rap dude, it reduces the equally complicated Jolie to an underwater vamp with Jolie’s luscious lips and air of husky sexuality. Husky sexuality is just what’s called for in a movie like Gia, but it seems creepy and unnerving in an animated fish movie aimed at small children. Yet the inappropriateness of sexualizing a cold-blooded sea creature apparently didn’t keep the animators from thinking, “Oh man, if we do our jobs correctly, everyone is going to want to fuck this fish.”
But before Shark Tale can introduce some of the sexiest, most fuckable fish ever committed to a family film, it first indulges in world-building. Terrible, terrible world-building that establishes an undersea society that’s exactly like our own, but overrun with terrible fish puns.
Shark Tale takes place in a world where the underwater equivalent of the Hollywood Walk Of Fame features stars for such figures as “Mussel Crowe,” “Jessica Shrimpson,” and “Cod Stewart,” while consumers drinking “Coral-Cola” shop at the “Gup” and communicate via “shell phones” instead of cell phones. But the film’s hokiest bit of world-building involves moving the entire world of The Godfather underwater. It’s as if DreamWorks decided to make an entire movie based on a single stupid pun: What if the mobster threatening that an enemy will “sleep with fishes” actually was a fish? Eh? Eh? And what if Robert De Niro, who at the time was beginning to show a strong eagerness to do things in exchange for large amounts of money, regardless of how silly or undignified those things might be, was the one doing some of that mob-style threatening?
De Niro plays Don Lino, a great white shark and Godfather of the sea who lives in denial about his effete misfit son, Lenny (Jack Black), a pacifistic vegetarian who likes to promenade about as a dolphin. Oscar and Lenny’s relationship begins when Lenny’s more aggressive brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli) is accidentally killed by a falling anchor. Lenny is guilt-stricken, but Oscar spies an opportunity for personal advancement when he begins to claim credit for killing the hated shark. With Oscar’s help, Lenny goes into hiding, while Oscar exploits his newfound fame for all it’s worth. Suddenly, Oscar is realizing all his shallow materialistic dreams as a world-conquering superstar, but at the expense of his soul.
Shark Tale traffics in familiar hokum about believing in yourself and valuing true friends above scheming parasites, but at least this trite sentimentality provides a welcome respite from wall-to-wall pop-culture references seemingly designed to destroy viewers’ affections not just for the pop culture being referenced, but for pop culture as a whole. Oscar does an elaborate Hammer dance to “U Can’t Touch This.” Martin Scorsese, that pre-eminent genius of American film, is saddled with Puff Daddy and raise-the-roof jokes. And in a particularly desperate nadir, Oscar takes time off from pretending to pursue Lenny around their underground city in a widely televised fake chase to randomly pop off movie catchphrases like, “Are you not entertained?”, “You can’t handle the truth!”, and “You had me at hello!” Shark Tale is like Michael Bolton in Lonely Island’s “Jack Sparrow,” only not funny.
Shark Tale ends with Oscar reconciled to a modest but satisfying life taking over the car wash he spent so much of the early part of the film trying to escape. The film closes with fish that bear nightmarish resemblances to Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilera belting out a cover of “Car Wash” that is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, like everything about Shark Tale, the song is not original. It’s a cover of the theme song to the wonderful 1976 cult classic. But that isn’t the only way the song is a sad reprise of past glories: The pairing of Aguilera and Elliott on a cover of a 1970s classic is also designed to resurrect fond memories of their collaboration alongside Mya and Lil’ Kim on the smash-hit “Lady Marmalade” cover from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. So a movie that is nothing but one dead, empty, self-satisfied layer of pop-culture references atop another ends with a would-be anthem that likewise represents a tapestry of easy, familiar pop-culture references with nothing underneath.
There is nothing to Shark Tale, really—no wit, no soul, no heart. Nothing but the faint, reassuring buzz of familiarity. In 2004, that was enough to make the film a massive hit and an Oscar nominee, but today, we hopefully ask for more from animated movies than faux hip-hop culture-clash comedy wedded to the reference-as-punchline idiocy of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.
I would not want to live in a world where all animated movies are like Shark Tale. I like to think animation learned something from Shark Tale’s mistakes, that the nightmare-inducing trauma of seeing underwater creatures freakishly mashed up with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Renée Zellweger prompted studios to realize that animation’s obsession with celebrity had grown monstrous and disturbing. Shark Tale’s animation isn’t bad, but the hideousness of its character design and the awfulness of its script makes it difficult to overlook anything but the aching, all-encompassing nothingness at the film’s core. Shark Tale doesn’t just fail to add anything of substance to the culture, it parasitically eats away at our affection for what it’s so lazily recycling. In that respect, it doesn’t merely offer nothing; it offers less than nothing.
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