by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $75 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 36%
Ever since I started this little project, I was dreading the moment when I would have to do Shark Tale. Its presence on the “To Watch” list hung over the entire venture like a dead rotting albatross, never letting me forget its existence even whilst I was really enjoying myself with DreamWorks Animation’s other, really very enjoyable films. Shark Tale, you see, has a reputation. Despite taking $367 million worldwide and being the 9th Highest Grossing Film of 2004 Worldwide, you will find nobody who is willing to admit to liking Shark Tale. It is widely seen as one of the worst animated films of the decade, a distillation of everything that is wrong with animated movies and DreamWorks Animation, and would have faded into total obscurity if it weren’t for obsessive asshats like my good self dredging it back up every so often to ensure that nobody forgets it, lest they end up making the same mistakes and subjected a new generation to unspeakable horrors.
Yet, though I approached my task with wary and weary resignation, I entered with a good sense of curiosity overriding everything else. If you’ve noticed a common thread with regards to this series by now, it’ll be that this endeavour is just an excuse for me to take an in-depth look at animated movies and spend multiple A4 pages explaining why they do or do-not work, why they were or were-not successful at the time, and to go on for hours about the history of animation, a subject I know much less about than you think I do. And let’s not short-sell it, Shark Tale was a giant success at the box office with the public. It was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (2004 was not a good year for the medium, granted, but this over The Spongebob Squarepants Movie?!). Obviously it must have done something right. I even had the DVD and watched the film a few times as a kid. Seeing as I remembered nothing about it, I decided to go in with the hopes that it couldn’t be as bad as it had been made out to be, and that I was going to try and figure out why this movie became so successful yet faded into memory.
Below, you will find my reaction to Shark Tale whilst it was running and for a good half hour after it finished.
Shark Tale is one of the worst films that I have ever seen. This is not an exaggeration, one made for comic effect and to flanderize my true thoughts on the movie. Shark Tale is one of the worst films that I have ever seen in my entire life. At the 22 minute mark, I genuinely paused the film with the intent of shutting it off and never returning to it. I have only ever (metaphorically) walked out of a film once due to it being absolutely dreadful (read: no outside circumstances, like power cuts or needing to be elsewhere), said film being Disaster Movie, and Shark Tale came this close to joining that club. I don’t even know how I’m going to touch on everything wrong with this movie within my usual allotted space. This is a total failure on every single level and there are no redeeming qualities anywhere. That sentence should probably give you a strong indicator as to why I was all set to just quit at barely the 1/4 mark.
But, I persevered, for I set out to watch every single DreamWorks Animation film and over-analyse them like a nit-picky internet jerk. Plus, it would look really bad if I missed a week and just moved onto Madagascar without saying anything about this. So, with the remainder of our allotted time together (because you are busy people with places to be and better things to be doing than watching a 19 year-old man complain about Shark Tale for an eternity), I will attempt to explain what is wrong with Shark Tale. The result will likely end up covering just a fraction of the problems with this film. Be grateful this isn’t a video or audio-based series, as the end result would probably be about 90 minutes long and have at least 40% of the runtime consist of me sputtering futilely like an enraged-yet-despairing Looney Tunes character.
Let’s start with something easily tangible that we can all notice together: the animation and, most specifically, the character designs. The animation itself is mediocre to poor: there’s a lack of detail pretty much everywhere, the water doesn’t look or feel like water, colours are muddied instead of decently shaded, and movements are pretty dreadful. Whenever character movements aren’t being too jerky, less the artistic decision to make it “pose-to-pose” (like in the TV series Clone High) and more “this character needs to be in this position from that position, but lunchtime is coming up and I can’t be arsed, so I’m only going to do, like, half of the frames the job needs,” they’re instead being way too smooth and lacking in weight; it never feels like anyone’s actually in liquid of any viscosity, let alone the sea. It’s bad and, yes, it does come off even worse considering the fact that Finding Nemo came out 18 months earlier.
But the animation is not the main issue with the look of Shark Tale. That would be reserved for the character designs. Now, there is a reason why one does not try and accurately make animated characters look like the people voicing them. Actually, make that two reasons. The first is that you’re going to look very silly if you design a character to look like Brad Pitt and then Brad Pitt doesn’t show up to play him. The second is that a more cartoony and stylised art design for the rest of the film and a really accurate facial likeness of a celebrity don’t mix, meaning that your character is going to look hideous, terrifying, and completely ill-fitting with the rest of the world. Apply the knowledge that you’ve just learnt, then, to answering this question: why do you not try and design a cast of fish to have faces that resemble the people playing them.
Answer: because you get Jellyfish Christina Aguilera.
This is more terrifying than anything that Annabelle will cook up
That’s the most extreme example, but the rest of the cast are honestly not much better. Oscar’s face is noticeably off-looking from a good majority of angles, due to his eyes being too wide and his facial features trying to resemble Will Smith. Lola’s lips are stuck in this weird halfway house between fish and human, like they desperately tried to capture the effect of Angelina Jolie wearing lipstick and failed miserably, and just end up distracting as a result. Sykes, meanwhile, is basically the result of copying a photo of Martin Scorsese’s face without glasses, circa 1978, and pasting it onto a puffer-fish, with the unholy result being what you spend 90 minutes viewing. And the way that their fins move like human arms and hands is just unnervingly creepy. These are bad, ugly character designs; the kind that makes even the film’s nicest character, Lenny, look like a knock-off tie-in toy for the real character rather than anything loveable or even bearable to look at for 90 minutes.
I’m probably not going to get any better of a segway than that last paragraph, so let’s transition over to the voice acting. Now, stunt casting in animated films was absolutely nothing new in 2004. Hell, Shrek 2 heavily indulged in it about six months prior to Shark Tale, and let’s not forget the all-star cast lists of other DreamWorks films. And whilst I will sit here and grumble irritatingly about how professional VAs never get any chances in big budget cinema-focussed films nowadays, I will cease my complaining if the cast are really good or fit their parts well. Basically, as long as they were cast for reasons that amount to more than “they’re big now, right?” then I don’t have a problem. You’ll notice that this is why I didn’t moan about the overabundance of big-names populating Shrek 2, they may have been given garbage material but they were all at least trying to make it work.
As you may have guessed by that entire preceding paragraph, I am building up to the earth-shattering revelation that almost none of Shark Tale’s cast are any good or even trying at all. There are those in paycheque-collecting mode (Robert De Niro who almost reaches the depths he plumbed in The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle just 4 years earlier), those who are flatter than Flat Stanley (Angelina Jolie who, goddammit, is supposed to be playing a sexpot, for crying out loud), those who are trying but being directed poorly (Jack Black is the only one of the main cast who actually tries putting on a voice, but he can’t stick with it the whole way through), and then there is Martin Scorsese. Before watching Shark Tale, I firmly believed that I could listen to Martin Scorsese talk about anything for hours. The man is just so excitable and passionate about pretty much anything that he could probably read the phone book and hold my interest.
Then, about 11 minutes into Shark Tale, this happens.
Look, maybe there’s a way to make that exchange funny. Scorsese did not know how. That was my first indicator that my long-held belief with regards to Scorsese was going to be put to the ultimate test. The man, quite simply, is out of his depth (he he, sea puns) and I realised that he would not be able to elevate garbage material. That, incidentally, is the only clip of Shark Tale that I can find on YouTube with Sykes prominently featured in it, which is a pain for me trying to illustrate my point, but a blessing for you, the reader. See, that means that you don’t have to see or hear Martin Scorsese attempting fist-bumps, gangster lingo, dreadful mafia movie references, or “that one dance move where you lick your finger, place it on your butt and hiss like steam is going off” and you get to go through life without having those images permanently seared into your subconscious because DEAR GOD WHY!?
So it probably won’t surprise you to find out that Shark Tale was written by white people, yet keeps attempting to work in references to hip-hop, gangster, and lower-class New York life. It also probably won’t surprise you to find out that their every attempt to tap into those sub-cultures is embarrassingly cringeworthy and gives off the strong impression that their only experience of primarily black culture was The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. Fitting seeing as Will Smith is playing the lead, but it leads to this continual feel of people trying to tap into sub-cultures that have become popular without actually understanding them. Or, in fact, knowing anything about them at all beyond a ten-second Google search and an afternoon watching MTV Base. It’s like if your Granddad tried to prove that he is “hip” and “down with the kids” by using those very phrases earnestly.
Plus, those references don’t gel with the gangster movie that Shark Tale also wants to be. In fact, Shark Tale is a confused and aimless movie with no general point to it. It keeps trying on all of these different hats, all these different plot threads, all these different thematic threads, but it never settles on one. Not once does the film seem to know what it’s trying to be. Is it a mafia story about a father who is passing on his empire to his sons? Is it a rags-to-riches story about a lowly schmuck who has dreams bigger than his current standing in life? Is it a cautionary tale about how lying will only make things worse for everyone or about not letting success go to your head? Is it a film about grief? Is it a film about social standing? Is it a film that uses the thinnest of metaphors for homosexuality and coming out to your parents?
Truth is that Shark Tale is about every single one of these and none of them whatsoever, because it tries to do them all at once and schizophrenically hops between them from scene-to-scene doing absolutely none of them justice. As a result of this indecisiveness, the film lacks a thematic core, a central reason as to why all of its events are happening. Of course, I’m pretty sure the problem is not indecisiveness. The entire vibe that Shark Tale gives off, more than any other, is a desire to earn a quick buck. A light bulb moment from everyone involved higher-up at the company: the realisation that Shrek may be a winning formula and a desire to milk that “edgy kids’ animation” udder as hard and as fast as is humanly possible. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the film was greenlit after somebody walked up to a man in charge one day with a list of A-list actors and a note saying that rap culture was in right now, with everything else just being made up on the fly after the fact. It would explain the total over-stuffed mess that we ended up getting.
It would also explain how we ended up with one of the most inadvertently unlikeable heroes I have ever met in an animated movie. Seriously, Oscar is a giant jerk-ass. He is selfish, manipulative, a compulsive liar, gambler and overall degenerate, lazy, uncaring of his friends, and only helpful when it serves his own personal interests. Now, I get that this is supposed to be the point, he starts a jerk and then gets better when character development kicks in, but there are two stumbling blocks to this. 1) He begins too unlikeable. There is a difference between “a jerk who is entertaining to watch” and “a jerk who I would like to see flambéed immediately” and he is most definitely in the latter category, despite Will Smith’s natural likeable charisma. 2) His big heroic act near the end, rescuing Angie and revealing his lie, is still being done out of selfish desires, a desire to pork Angie, so he’s actually learnt nothing. His making amends with the sharks feels crowbarred in purely to try and make that complaint hold little weight, instead of anything natural.
That “pitch” that I mentioned two paragraphs back would probably also explain why the film’s “jokes” are so utterly non-existent or just-plain-terrible. As a little mini-case study, let’s all watch the fake shark attack sequence together.
Notice how most of this sequence is not built on broad physical comedy, character work, or at least contrasting the fake performance with how it looks to the bystanders. Notice instead how it primarily attempts to get its laughs from random pop culture references. Yes, references. Lenny singing a bastardisation of the Jaws theme to himself (which is not a call-back, despite the joke having already been used with a different character earlier in the movie, because it’s the same joke), the battle taking place in a very-thinly veiled version of New York, and then there’s that bit where Oscar just starts shouting phrases from classic movies. None of them have any reason for being said in the context of the scene, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to their delivery or choice; the lone exception being “YOU HAD ME AT ‘HELLO’!” because, hey, Renée Zellweger starred in Jerry Maguire so ha.
The scene has no actual jokes. Lenny eating Oscar could have been a funny sudden gag, but it’s dragged out too long, leads into an overly-tangential rant by Oscar, and the animation is too low-quality to truly sell it. Otherwise, it’s just pop culture references and a performance that’s too absurd and too long to be funny. When concocting a scene where two characters are putting on a fake display of some kind, you need it to be absurd enough that it’s funny for the viewer, but not dragged out too long as to make them start wondering why nobody in the film’s world has cottoned on. There also need to be jokes. Shark Tale’s is absurd, but it goes on for way too long and lacks in jokes, making one wonder how anyone could be buying this. (For an example of how to do this kind of thing right, I point you towards this scene from Avatar: The Last Airbender.) Instead of there being actual jokes, Lenny gets punched through a billboard for Jaws. Ha. Ha. Ha.
And that kind of quote-unquote joke abounds everywhere throughout Shark Tale. From its casting (hey, look, it’s Michael Imperioli who is here because he was in Goodfellas and The Sopranos), to its billboard parodies (more on those in a sec), to brick jokes that should be funny (a shrimp that Lenny spared earlier in the movie returns in the climax quite literally so that it can say “Say hello to my little friends!”), to pretty much any usage of music. What do I mean by that? When Oscar seems to have outsmarted the sharks, he immediately gets up on the table and sings Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, complete with doing the dance (which was the moment I realised why Oscar’s character design was the way it was). When Lola is introduced (and I could write something like 20 paragraphs on this film’s usage and treatment of women, so be glad we’re near wrapping-up time), the soundtrack plays Gold Digger by Ludacris, to just ram that point home as hard as is humanly possible. And then, there’s this.
Oy vey indeed, Robert De Niro. It’s all just so goddamn lazy, completely devoid of skill or effort, and done with a near-total contempt for the audience the result ends up in front of. Then, much like in Shrek 2, there are the jokes aimed only at children, because attempting double-coding properly like in the first Shrek was just too much work for everyone involved at DreamWorks Animation in 2004. You know: fart jokes, inherently funny words being repeated endlessly for no reason, wacky comic relief that pops up with a joke any time that a scene gets in danger of being too serious (funny that the first Shrek lampooned this Disney trope and yet DreamWorks couldn’t stay away from it, isn’t it), more fart jokes, wacky comic relief based around racial stereotypes that everyone involved hopes that children are too young to realise are racist, something gross occurring, even more fart jokes, poorly-done physical humour, and sudden music cues because WACKY! Wanna take a guess how this all turns out?
One last thing and then I will let you leave. I get that Shark Tale is supposed to be set in an underwater equivalent to New York City. I get that that means that there will be a temptation for the animators to create parodies of famous brands and advertising billboards and the like, littering them around the set. When the parodies are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, to such a degree that I spent a good half of the movie thinking that there was genuine product placement going on for Coca-Cola until it got a close-up, though, you have failed at your job. There are not-100%-intrusive places for product placement in movies. An animated film aimed at kids’ about undersea life is not one of them. This should have been cut down immediately in the concept stage of the film’s lifespan, especially since it’s one of the quickest ways to figure out exactly when the film came out and the culture it spawned from.
Well, we’re out of time. I hope you enjoyed this systemic breakdown of just a small percentage, about 14% tops, of the ways that Shark Tale is a complete and total failure, a blight on DreamWorks Animation, the animation industry as a whole, and the world in general, and a completely creatively-bankrupt exercise in cynical cash-grab movie-making. Fortunately for us all, despite being one of the year’s highest grossing films, we have been spared any further adventures in the world of Shark Tale as, apparently, it didn’t play well overseas. Which is demonstrably false, but I guess is better for business than just admitting that everyone at DreamWorks done f*cked up and would prefer that we never speak of this again. A sentiment that I will be happy to oblige…
…right after I subject you all to The Dance Party Ending.
See you next week, folks!
2004 was the year that DreamWorks Animation forcefully staked their claim to the feature-length animation landscape. Two giant financial successes, one of which also being a critical smash, will do that to your standing. The company would spend the next few years solidifying its position as one of the major players in that field, albeit mostly at the cost of the critical acclaim that stood them out from the pack of pretenders at the beginning of their career, keeping up a steady output of two films every year for almost the entire remainder of the decade. Next week, we enter 2005 and look at the beginnings of their second mega-successful franchise, Madagascar.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Callum Petch might not ever get rich, but it’s better than digging a ditch. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!