Like any studio-financed, machine-pressed animation production, Shark Tale—Dreamworks' feeble response to Pixar's superior Finding Nemo—has several credited directors and writers. But the real, uncredited architects are a bunch of kids in the mall: Every single joke, character detail, music montage, and pop-culture reference looks extensively market-tested, whether via screenings, focus groups, or other box-office successes. With dollar signs in its eyes and nothing in its heart, Shark Tale calculates each moment for the broadest appeal, but its impact couldn't be more impersonal. The filmmakers are convinced people will like it because the spreadsheets and pie charts tell them so, not because they've invested it with originality or passion.
Round 2 in the war of attrition between Dreamworks and Pixar (the latter also handily won in the first round, which pitted A Bug's Life against Dreamworks' Antz), Shark Tale steals shamelessly from Finding Nemo, but actually has a good idea at its core. Under the sea, sharks are no doubt near the top of the food chain, so it makes sense to cast them as high-living gangsters, muscling the weaker fish around the reef and turning the ocean into a vast seafood buffet. But the movie really belongs to Will Smith, in full Fresh Prince mode (hip-hop for the whole family!) as a fast-talking, blinged-out little gill-flapper with dreams of upward mobility. In a reef designed to look like Times Square, complete with irritating fake/real product logos for Coral-Cola and the Gup, Smith mops sludge at a Whale Wash while eyeing the penthouse. When a dropped anchor pummels a vicious shark henchman, Smith earns instant money and fame for taking credit for the kill, but mob boss Robert De Niro wants his revenge.
The vocal talents in Shark Tale run deep: A mush-mouthed Jack Black, sounding like an effeminate Arnold Horshack, plays a swishy vegetarian shark; Renée Zellweger plays a doe-eyed Jane who secretly loves Smith; Angelina Jolie plays a fish fatale; and Martin Scorsese plays a double-dealing puffer fish. (Scorsese fanatics who would rather not hear the great director exclaim "Yo! Yo! Yo!" or "Raise the reef!" should stay home.) A few lively early scenes in gangland, particularly the inside jabs between De Niro and Scorsese, suggest that The Godfather could work underwater, though it's a sign of the film's obviousness that the mobsters convene in the Titanic wreckage. Soon enough, Shark Tale gives itself over to Smith, who riffs up his usual storm of non-threatening street language and braggadocio, all while playing a character with an antiheroic desire for banal human crap. Smith feels right at home in an urban seascape cluttered with high-rises, billboards, taxis, and elevators, but the film's aquatic corollary to the real world barely counts as escapism.