There's an Italian-American advocacy group protesting the new Dreamworks computer-animated film Shark Tale, distressed that the sharks in the film are portrayed as mobsters with names like Don Lino and Don Brizzi and voiced by actors known for perpetuating Italian-American stereotypes, like Robert De Niro and two stars of The Sopranos, Vincent Pastore and Michael Imperioli. Their argument seems silly—all the evidence of racism in the world, and these people are getting worked up over some cartoon animals in a kids' movie?
See the movie, though, and you'll realize that the Italian-Americans aren't the only ones who have reason to get worked up. The stereotyping in Shark Tale is gentle, sure, and there are far greater injustices in the world and even in cinema that call out to be redressed, but it's there nonetheless, and it's only one of the problems with this lazy, smug film. The makers of Shark Tale obviously think that kids will be entertained by anything with bright colors and the occasional fart joke, and adults will be so grateful for a few pop-culture references they understand that they'll give the film the benefit of the doubt.
Sadly, the makers of Shark Tale are probably right, but it'd be nice to see them proven wrong. Everything Finding Nemo was not, Shark Tale will unfortunately invite comparisons to Pixar's warm, affecting film, and entice patrons who can't bother to tell the difference. It's all in what's below the surface, as both films boast impressive visuals and simple story structures with lessons for young viewers. But Shark Tale is resolutely superficial, starting with ostensible hero Oscar (voiced by Will Smith), a layabout with dreams of fame and fortune that never include the means of getting there. Oscar works as a scrubber at the car wash-like Whale Wash, one of the many (many, many) pun-based analogues for human institutions that pepper the film's fish metropolis. Smith is at his most annoying as the perpetually-mugging Oscar, who enforces the stereotype of the lazy, young black man who daydreams his life away.
Oscar is in debt to his boss, blowfish Sykes (Martin Scorsese), who in turn is in debt to shark mob boss Don Lino (Robert De Niro, continuing his descent into abject self-parody). Don Lino wants to turn his empire over to sons Frankie (Michael Imperioli), a macho goomba, and Lenny (Jack Black), an effete whiner who can't bring himself to actually kill and eat other creatures. All of these issues come to a head as Oscar is being tormented by Sykes' Rastafarian jellyfish henchmen, and Frankie is trying to teach Lenny a lesson in being a predator. Frankie is crushed to death by a falling anchor and Oscar takes the credit, becoming a hero to the fish and inadvertent protector of timid Lenny.
Suddenly a celebrity, Oscar forsakes his best friend and unrequited love interest Angie (Renee Zellweger) for hottie gold digger Lola (Angelina Jolie) and tries to maintain his charade as the shark mob hunts both him and Lenny down. Eventually, there's a halfhearted moral about staying true to yourself and tolerating those who are different, but it's buried under a mound of unfunny jokes and lessons that seem to contradict the ultimate message. The stereotypes abound, from the Rastafarian jellyfish who are perpetually out of it to young, graffiti-painting ghetto kids to a throwaway gag with Indian-sounding cabbie fish. Black voices Lenny with a fey whine, and the character's penchant for cross-dressing as a dolphin points to a particularly unflattering portrayal of homosexuality.
The subtle prejudices are less about actual racism or homophobia than about simple laziness, as they provide easy shorthand for jokes and quick identification. Likewise, the fish city is overrun with ads that are just puns on popular real-world brands, and the dialogue is peppered with meaningless pop-culture references. Simply quoting a line from another film is neither clever nor funny when it has no relevance to the plot or the characters.
Like Dreamworks' Shrek films, Shark Tale gets by on the assumption that its audience already likes it before heading into the theater. Unlike Shrek, though, it doesn't have the comedic talent or occasional cleverness to excuse its arrogance. Smith in particular is so grating that by the end of the film you wish De Niro's shark Don would just hurry up and eat Oscar already. The whole experience just makes you feel dirty, patronized and exhausted. If there's any justice, this Tale will quickly drown.