Tag Archives: Renée Zellweger

Bee Movie

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.


bee movieBefore we jump into this week’s film, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to address a news story that broke this past week.  So, last Thursday it was rumoured/revealed that Hasbro and DreamWorks Animation had entered into merger/buyout talks with one another; Katzenberg looking for a lifeline for his company that is really not doing well at all right now and Hasbro wanting to continue their expansion into multiple markets.  Those talks broke down by Saturday, however, as Katzenberg was asking for too much ($35 a share for a company in DreamWorks’ state is rather unreasonable, let’s be frank) and Hasbro’s stock dropped 6% when the deal talks leaked to the press.

Yeah, to put it bluntly, DreamWorks Animation are so far down in stockholder appreciations that merely being rumoured to possibly being associated with them in the future is enough to get dragged down with them (incidentally, DreamWorks’ stock went up 16% when the news leaked).  Fact of the matter is that the company is in a really bad spot right now.  Three of their last five films have failed to earn over $310 million at the worldwide box office, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the second highest grossing animated film of the year and has comfortably out-grossed the original but took too long to do so and gained most of its money from overseas (this article and this article should adequately explain why these are negative things for DreamWorks), and they really only have the Madagascar franchise as a legitimate fall-back cash-cow now (and even then I may have to revise this statement in two weeks if Penguins Of Madagascar underperforms).

Look, DreamWorks need a partner and they need it soon.  Their films have mostly been good to great recently, but whether it be due to overexposure, the fluctuating quality of those films (again, I stress “mostly”), the continued public perception of what a DreamWorks film is, and also the fact that they haven’t changed the way they market those films in a good half decade – after all, what worked once isn’t necessarily going to work today in a field that is way more competitive – the public just aren’t turning up.  There’s too much competition, too many new voices, many of which are actually trying new things and new ways to enrapture viewers – there’s a very good reason why The Lego Movie stomped all over all-comers this year, and it’s not just due to its release date.

As I have mentioned before, DreamWorks Animation is an independent publically-traded company.  Unlike Disney, unlike Pixar, unlike Blue Sky, even unlike Laika as it turns out, they don’t have a fall-back if they hit a string of big failures.  They don’t have big daddy Disney or 20th Century Fox to bail them out.  They hit too many duds, then investors will panic and pull support & funding from the company and then it’s all over.  They will be finished.  This is why Katzenberg is searching desperately for a buyer, somebody to provide them with a fall-back.  Problem is, Katzenberg doesn’t really seem to understand the severity of the situation that he’s currently in – which explains his high asking price and apparent demands to be the head of whatever the company ends up as after the merger.

Even worse… I really can’t think of a better partner than Hasbro.  DreamWorks brings the few successful franchises and mega-hits it has, the apparently lucrative deal that they now have with Netflix to stream and fund their television output, and a whole mega-tonne of potential merchandising dollars from toys and the like – assuming that current licensing deals aren’t too scattered and complex (I don’t have time to search that up, unfortunately).  Hasbro would bring the bank required to keep DreamWorks afloat and the reach to be able to force DreamWorks back into the popular culture again.  It’s a near-perfect partnership… except that it now won’t happen due to Katzenberg’s stubbornness and Hasbro blinking when Wall Street declared DW a sinking ship – although I can’t blame a company that lost $300 million in value after the news broke for trying to back away as fast as humanly possible.

Though I worry now, I do feel that DreamWorks will be fine in the long run.  He may be as stubborn as a mule, but I think Katzenberg will eventually relax and work out a deal that benefits the buyer as much as it does himself.  I also get the feeling that this recent string of box office disappointments will cause a rethink as to the greenlighting process at the company – maybe being more selective about what goes from pitch to screen – and the scheduling process in general – three films a year cheapens the Event feel of a DreamWorks movie (unlike a Pixar movie, where a release is an Event) and undoubtedly leads to audience fatigue.  It might also be time for Katzenberg to step aside, too, and I’ll maybe explain why I think that later in this series because we need to move on now.

So, to conclude, DreamWorks will probably be fine, but they need a major overhaul of how things work there and they need a buyer yesterday with Hasbro having been the closest thing to a perfect partnership that they could have had.  For more on this situation, I point you in the direction of Variety’s excellent little piece on the matter.  Now, though, we move on to the main crux of today’s article: Bee Movie.


15] Bee Movie (2nd November 2007)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $287,594,577

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 51%

Does the fact that Bee Movie failed, and has largely been forgotten about by everyone who has ever come into contact with it, surprise anyone?  It’s a DreamWorks film that came out during the absolute nadir of their history so far, it looks on the surface like every single one of their interchangeable subpar films combined, the trailers (the real trailers, not the ridiculous yet hilarious live-action ones that trailed the public’s actual first look at the film) were filled with pop culture references, CA-RAY-ZEE action sequences and promised a plot that audiences had already seen a good 86 times prior.  The Jerry Seinfeld connection wouldn’t have helped, either, setting unrealistically high expectations that would cause disappointment no matter how it turned out.

So, yeah, it probably surprises nobody that Bee Movie didn’t really do too well.  Although it debuted in second place with $38 million, behind American Gangster, and managed to take the number one spot the week after, Bee Movie wound up as the lowest grossing computer-animated DreamWorks film worldwide at that time (with the unfair exception of Antz) – that dubious distinction would later be handed to Turbo and finally Mr. Peabody & Sherman, to link that detour at the beginning of this piece back to the article at large.  Admittedly, this may have something to do with an ad campaign that was… thorough, to put it in the nicest possible terms, and subsequently driven people away.  After all, remember, there’s a fine line between promoting your film enough to get people to see it and promoting it too much and turning them away for good.

Critics, meanwhile, were kinda ambivalent about the whole thing.  That 51% Rotten Tomatoes rating is less due to them being polarised in pure absolute sides of “I love it!” “I hate it!” and more the severity of how “meh” they felt towards the thing.  Many found it generic, lacking in heart, lacking in laughs, and – in that most generic of cast-off statements towards any non-Pixar animations, even when it really doesn’t apply – good for young kids but not much else.  Again, the Seinfeld connection (he voices the lead, wrote the script with several of Seinfeld’s writers, and oversaw every facet of production for the four years it ran for) likely raised expectations to levels the film couldn’t reach, or coloured them for a film this was never going to be.  Or, to use a phrase that will now likely position me as the site’s beret-wearing hipster, they simply just didn’t get it.

For I would like to posit to you, dear reader, that Bee Movie is actually an underrated piece of pure genius.  Intrigued?  Confused?  Too busy laughing in disbelief to coherently read any of these words?  Well allow me a small manner of indulgence for the next several paragraphs, and I shall explain.

It doesn’t start out particularly great, mind.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an animal voiced by a relatively famous comedian objects to his regimented place in life, a life that is very much anthropomorphised to a large degree, and wishes to instead explore the outside world.  There he makes friends with a human, engages in a whole bunch of manic chase/action scenes, runs afoul of the Real World, and, through strength and resolve and sheer goodwill, is able to change his society’s entire structure, earn the acceptance he so desperately craves and live a life that balances the Real World with the Animal World.

And the first 30 minutes proceed pretty much exactly as you’d expect.  A tonne of incredibly easy bee puns and bee-related jokes – although I will cop to laughing at the cleverer ones and eventually being worn down by the sheer number of them into laughing at the lesser ones in spite of myself – stapled onto a narrative that carries so many parallels to Ratatouille that I started wondering if the two studios weren’t swapping ideas.  Throw in some mediocre-to-blergh animation – character designs are incredibly generic, although not unappealing, whilst the actual animation lacks detail pretty much everywhere, chroma-keying is frequent and noticeable, and camera movement is jerky and really distracting which is a problem considering the number of bee flying sequences – and a bunch of pop culture references – “What’s the deal with Tivo?” – and you get exactly the film you’re probably expecting.

Then Barry B. Benson, the bee, falls in love with Vanessa, the human.  And he has a swordfight with a supermarket staffer with a drawing pin.  And he sneaks into a honey production facility that very much resembles a slave labour camp.  And then he sues the entire human race for control of all of the world’s honey.  It’s about the time that Barry is openly pointing out the fact that Bee Larry King is a walking pop culture reference instead of a joke – by openly noting that he has a human equivalent with the exact same schtick and hammering home all of the ways in which the reference is the laziest kind of joke – that it finally dawned on me.  Bee Movie is not a bad, heartless, nonsensical cash-grab animated kids’ film.

Bee Movie is a parody of bad, heartless, nonsensical cash-grab animated kids’ films.

I mean, just think about it for a sec.  The ridiculous platonic friendship/pointless romance between the two leads – she leaves her husband for a BEE, for Christ’s sake! – the random cameos from real celebrities that reek of stunt casting, the arbitrary shoved-in action scenes that disrupt the film’s flow, one single male animal managing to cause giant change in their species’ and society’s entire way of being, the suddenly large stakes in the finale?  Every one of these tropes and ideas show up in practically every bad animated film – even many of DreamWorks’ own films – but their deployment here is done so knowingly, so openly, so blatantly, so ridiculously that it’s hard to not read the thing as a parody!  Especially since the film keeps lurching between being completely in on its joke and not realising just how ridiculous it’s being.

Nothing in this film is designed to be taken in the slightest bit seriously, least of all the tired tropes; refreshing considering the total straight-facedness that the films Bee Movie ends up mocking usually deploy them with.  For example, most bad animated films would have the appearance of a celebrity be the joke in and of itself – The Nut Job and Psy, for instance – and Sting’s appearance seems like it’s just there for yet another bee pun and a “Hey, look!  It’s Sting!  He’s somebody I recognise and therefore will laugh at!” gag.  But then it extracts an actual really funny joke out of it – Layton T. Montgomery’s incensed reaction that his legal team didn’t know that Sting wasn’t the guy’s real name, like this is case-losing information – saving the concept from the initial groan I let out when he was revealed.

Any time the film seems like it’s aiming for drama, it purposefully undercuts proceedings with a joke, effectively openly calling out how dumb it is for there to be genuine life-or-death stakes in a film that has already mined a tonne of gags out of the fact that it had previously established its cast to be indestructible.  The early goings make a big point out of bees dying shortly after their one sting, so one would expect the moment where Barry’s best bee friend Adam wastes his sting on Layton to be played for unearned pathos.  Bee Movie, however, is smarter than that and so undercuts the drama not once but thrice, to absolutely hammer the point home.  First with Layton’s hysterical overreaction to a tiny bee sting, second by showing Adam the bee getting his own hospital bed (complete with beeping heart monitor) that Barry visits him in, thirdly by having Adam make a full recovery and replace his stinger with a tiny plastic fork.

Silliness, utterly insane silliness, ends up being the vehicle used to drive home the parodic elements, again enhanced by the film playing itself straight for literally only as long as it needs to.  It reminds me a lot of The Emperor’s New Groove, just without the fourth wall breaks and the secret heart in the centre.  It’s a joke machine.  An incredibly efficient and ridiculous joke machine.  That’s why the film’s constant mangling of its messages isn’t a problem, or accidentally come off as White Male Privilege talking – if you were to play this movie straight, the message would be “don’t attempt to change entrenched social injustices, like racism, as your actions may cause repercussions that could doom humanity as a whole.”  Nothing is supposed to be taken seriously because the film’s sole goals are to be funny and to mock films that would otherwise play this stuff straight.

The downside of this, of course, is that it takes a long while for that ridiculousness to become apparent.  Bee Movie’s opening stretch, as mentioned, is played rather straight to make the moment where it casts off its trench coat and reveals itself to be a streaking bonkers lunatic – specifically about the time that a colony of bees are arguing against a Texan caricature in a court of law with everybody in the film’s universe treating this as a normal and acceptable thing – hit that much harder.  Therefore, it can be mistaken as the film being completely earnest about these scenes and trying to play them as anything other than silliness – like what happened with What We Did On Our Holiday (with the caveat that that film had no parodic undertones).

Openings can set impressions, you see, and left-turn twists and genre and tone changes can come off badly or off-putting if they feel too abrupt.  Again, Bee Movie builds its ridiculousness, it builds its parodic intentions, starting very subtly – disguising its more subversive material by drowning it out with endless bee puns and incredibly generic presentation of worlds and ideas you’ve seen before – seemingly peaking in the middle with the trial, before finishing by throwing in last minute life-or-death fate-of-the-human-race stakes and a needless action scene with a crowbarred in moral – everything to do with the plane.  The rise is why the nonsensical finale works so well, but the film follows those tropes close enough and resembles them enough that one can mistake it for a bad stupid kids’ film if they’ve checked out in the opening third.

And you know what?  Maybe it just is.  Maybe I’m talking out of my arse.  There are six credited writers on this thing (four officially, two “additional screenplay material”), so any chance of any intentional committed through-line is likely impossible, let alone one that’s a giant parody of terrible kids’ flicks.  Yet the film lends itself so easily to this interpretation, particularly with just how often it seems to be in on its joke, that I don’t feel like I’m incorrect by sitting here and officially classing the film as such.  I don’t think that Bee Movie is excellent, the animation is way too poor and the voice acting from Seinfeld himself is too all over the map for it to be excellent, but I do think it is way better and way smarter than people have given it credit for.  I mean, the film ends with a character voiced by Patrick Warburton screaming how “THAT BEE IS LIVING MY LIFE!!”  I think it knows how ridiculous it’s being.  Not bad for a film that literally only exists because Seinfeld made a pun to Steven Spielberg.

So, yeah, consider me the unofficial head of the “Bee Movie was a criminally underrated film that deserves reappraisal” group whenever that inevitably starts up.  I’m just as surprised about this development as you are.


Bee Movie backfired in DreamWorks’ face rather heavily, failing financially despite major promotion and failing critically despite the significant creative input of Jerry Seinfeld.  The company had basically hit rock bottom in the eyes of the more discerning animation fan, but at least was still in an OK financial state thanks to Shrek The Third.  2008, however, would herald the beginning of what many see as the creative renaissance of DreamWorks Animation with two films, one a sequel to a film that wasn’t well regarded, that demonstrated a new creative spark in the company; a commitment to making good films instead of a pure steady cash-flow, although both films would provide that as well.

Next week, we will look at the first of these two films.  One that, despite its critical adoration and stellar box office success, finally got Young Me to say “no more!” to DreamWorks films.  Next Monday, we tackle Kung Fu Panda.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is climbing tree trunks and swinging from every branch.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Shark Tale

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.


shark tale09] Shark Tale (1st October 2004)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $367,275,019

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 36%

Oy vey.

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.

double facepalm

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.

maxresdefault

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)!

A film couples special

In honour of this commercialised cliché of a Thursday, here are five film couples we’re rooting for. 

brief encounterCouple: Laura Jesson & Alec Harvey
Film: Brief Encounter (1945)
Background: Noel Coward’s poster child for adultery, the stunning Celia Johnson, plays a married with two housewife, whose only real excitement comes from her Thursday afternoon trips to Boots and the pictures. Her kids are bratty and her husband is a dull crossword obsessive, so when she meets a hunky doctor (Trevor Howard) on a train platform, she falls for him understandably hard.
Relationship: The clue’s in the film title. The pair have a handful of meetings, and a couple of furtive kisses. Although they get a room at one point, it doesn’t quite come off. Ultimately, marital commitments, family responsibility, and the lure of earning the big doctor bucks in Johannesburg win out over larking about on the boating lake together. Since Laura does the right thing, despite it condemning her to a life of misery, it’s shame she is denied the dramatic and emotional farewell she deserves. Bloody Brits and their stiff upper lips.
After the film: It being the forties, Laura & Alec aren’t privy to the same levels of constant communication we’re used to today. (One time, he misses their scheduled rendezvous due to a hospital emergency and she has to just wait until the next week to hear from him. Imagine!) This means that, sadly, they probably never spoke to each other again. They’d never pull that off today. He’d be stalking her on Facebook within five minutes of leaving the platform. After the obligatory ‘I’m on a train’ tweet, obviously.

jerry maguireCouple: Dorothy Boyd & Jerry Maguire
Film: Jerry Maguire (1996)
Background: After sports agent Jerry (Tom Cruise) has a crisis of conscience and distributes a mission statement that gets him summarily fired, accountant Dorothy (Renée Zellweger) is inspired enough to become his only employee.  Dorothy is a single mum, and Jerry has recently broken off his engagement with another woman. Their lack of office space, long working hours and general dire financial straits inevitably bring them closer together.
Relationship: ‘I’ve got this great guy. And he loves my kid. And he sure does like me a lot.’ Ok, so he shoplifted the pootie. And their subsequent marriage is more for tax purposes than anything romantic. But Jerry does eventually realise how much Dorothy means to him and, like the true salesman that he is, wins her back with a single word. He always was good in a living room.
After the film: Cynical as I am, I’d like to think these guys were just dysfunctional enough to make it. His share of that $11.2million Cardinals contract would surely reduce some of the stress, and give Dorothy the taste of First Class she deserved. And, with Rod & Marcee Tidwell (frankly the perfect couple) as their BFFs and relationship mentors, just maybe they did. At least long enough to take Ray to the fucking zoo, anyway.

fantastic-mr-foxCouple: Mr ‘Foxy’ Fox & Mrs Felicity Fox
Film: Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
Background: Young, in love and on a routine squab raid, Fox (George Clooney) & Felicity (Meryl Streep) get caught in a fox trap. Felicity reveals that she’s pregnant and makes him promise that, if they get out alive, he’ll find a safer line of work.
Relationship: 12 fox years later, the husband & wife are living a happy life of domesticity with their son Ash, but Fox still desires more. It isn’t long before his animal instincts drive him to risk everything in the pursuit of apple cider and poultry. It’s only when his nephew Kristofferson is captured that he realises the error of his ways. Though Felicity rolls her eyes and proclaims she never should have married him, it isn’t long before they’re dancing together over the end credits.
After the film: Their eventual underground home is safe enough to satisfy Felicity’s maternal instincts, with night time access to a supermarket to supply Foxy with the finer things in life. Plus, they’re going to have another cub. You’ve got to give them a fighting chance. Until he’s exhausted the supermarket’s extra special range, and gets a taste for foie gras again.

chasing amyCouple: Holden McNeil & Alyssa Jones
Film: Chasing Amy (1997)
Background: ‘Quickstop? My best friend fucked a dead guy in the bathroom!’ Holden (Ben Affleck) & Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) meet while appearing at a comic book convention in New York. Both hail from New Jersey and, as they soon discover, share a number of acquaintances. While Alyssa is gay, the pair soon become close and begin a relationship, which mainly consists of having sex, hanging out, and exchanging the usual Kevin Smith angst-ridden dialogue.
Relationship: The pair engage in lots of frantic sex, deep and challenging discussions about virginity and fisting, and some pretty killer arguments. Alyssa’s friends are distinctly unimpressed by the gender of her new beau, while Holden’s comic partner Banky goes out of his way to highlight her flaws. Holden freaks out when he learns more about Alyssa and her ‘Finger Cuffs’ history, and calls off the whole affair. One person who is rooting for them, however, is Silent Bob, who startlingly breaks his quiet in order to drop a relationship wisdom bomb and almost save the couple. Until Holden starts banging on about threesomes again.
After the film: Though the movie ends with Holden & Alyssa apart, there is definitely a glimmer of hope. Holden has learnt his lesson, lost his best friend, and written an apology comic, for crying out loud! It’d be nice to think that lovelorn Holden didn’t end up like Silent Bob – ‘A tubby bitch crying like a little girl to Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits’. (So says Jay. Personally I think he’s kind of hot.)

slumdog-millionaireCouple: Jamal & Latika
Film: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Background: Jamal (Dev Patel) and Latika (Freida Pinto) meet as children in the aftermath of the Bombay Riots. Taken by a gangster and trained as beggars, the two are separated by his meddling brother when they try to escape. The film tells the tale of Jamal’s life as he never stops looking for her, even while appearing on Indian quiz television.
Relationship: Jamal eventually tracks down and rescues Latika, only to have her stolen away by his older brother once more. Years later he finds her again, but she has to send him away to keep them both alive. It’s admittedly not the smoothest of couplings but, having experienced such a shitty start to life, you can understand his determination to make this work. After risking everything, and taking quite a few beatings, to save Latika, it’s his knowledge of cricket which eventually gets him the girl. And a the big stinking pile of cash.
After the film: D. It is written. Duh, of course they end up together! And I bet they have loads of cute kids. And all dance around to Jai Ho every single day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, love from Failed Critics x