Will Smith, Jack Black, Robert DeNiro, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie and Martin Scorsese, with Peter Falk, Vincent Pastore, Michael Empirioli, Katie Couric, Doug E Doug and Ziggy Marley.
No one likes a loser, but that’s usually from the loser’s point of view.
Oscar is a little fish in a big ocean. Sure, he has a secure life at the whale wash, but he can’t help but dream about being the cream of the crop on the high cliffs on the Reef. Only to hope for the better.
Lenny is a big fish in a small pool. He’s a disappointment to his Don of a shark, and won’t chomp lesser fish for ethical reasons. Lousy philosophy for an apex predator, and a disappointment to Pop. Only to hope for the worst.
So what are these odd couple of fish coming together gonna do to reach their goals?
Simple: social media and spray paint. Worked for David Flowie.
Got a meaty one for you this week. Ready?
This one was not my idea. I actually wrestled with it. Animated movies are almost unheard of here at RIORI for scrutiny. There was the recent Looney Tunes: Back In Action installment, but that was a mix of live action and cells. There was my take on Pixar’s Brave, which in my opinion was a very creaky, non-Pixar endeavor if there ever was one after the first Cars flick (IE: Cars 2 was deplorable, where the merch hit the stands before the movie proper hit the theatre). I’ve strayed away—mostly—form tackling mediocre animated flicks here because on the whole there is no specific audience. Unlike anime features, where there is a line always in the sand about where the content of a film takes you (EG: Akira and Ghost In The Shell is not Studio Ghibli), American animated films are designed to appeal to both young and old at the same time. Then again, if I have to sit through Frozen ONE MORE TIME I’m gonna have to let it go. Let it all go.
Shark Tale was a favorite flick for K. She loved this pastiche. Then again, she’s a gourmet regarding animated films. She’s a Pixar junkie, just like me. She is a dyed-in-wool Disney fan. Stone cold. She appreciates my adoration of Studio Ghibli’s output. We both dig the Looney Tunes (well, I dig. She goes along with them). I always have to be on top anyway we dig animated flicks. However there must be a line in the sand. Just because a movie is pixilated or celled does not a good film make. Passable yes, but not necessarily good. Ever watch the House Of Mouse’s output during the 70s? ‘Course not.
It was federal law to watch animated flicks when I was a pup. I was a Reagan Baby, and across the 80s there was a crazy quilt of animated feature films available to entertain and warp me at an impressionable (read: dumb) age. I wasn’t aware at the time, but there were a handful of what could be considered “subversive” films in that animated universe. Don’t quote me on this, but in hindsight the 80s might’ve been the watershed to introduce “adult” concepts into ostensibly movies designed for the junior set. Granted, there were classic Disney films the pushed the envelope. Sleeping Beauty featured baddie Malificent morph into a demonic dragon. Some asshat shot Bambi’s mom. The donkey-as-sin scene from Pinocchio is still harrowing. Hell, Cruella DiVille got her own movie recently, which admits her staying power as a palpable, lizard-like villain. So yeah, Uncle Walt’s early triumphs did not shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of life, real or imagined.
The following is all hindsight 20/20, 30 years on and not so dumb anymore (hopefully less dumb). Although I didn’t take much notice at the time, I’ve since recalled a handful of animated flicks that, well, left a curious taste in my brain. If you’re a member of Gen X you might dig what I’m sharing. Come, walk with me. It’s down a foggy memory lane. I have cookies.
Recall the Rankin/Bass meditation on death and rebirth that was The Last Unicorn. The creepiness of conspiracy and tyranny with The Secret of NIMH, what with its literal backstabbing. Heck, before the first act of the original (animated) Transformers movie began the nasty Decepticons whacked dozens of Autobot stalwarts from the TV series into so much scrap metal (I was really bummed how Ratchet—the Autobots’ medic—got mowed down by the nasty Megatron in gun form, which was based on a Nazi pistol). The flick had a stellar, old skool celebrity voice cast (EG: Orson Welles, Robert Stack and Lionel Stander, all hamming it up and having a blast). Some coarse language and lots of violence pervaded the film rendering our Autobot heroes from the last three sanitized seasons on TV rendered into smoldering slag. And the perquisite, unrelenting, insufferable, cheezy 80s soundtrack courtesy of Vince DiCola to boot. There was me as an eleven-year old: Cool! Ugh.
Finally, the proud, meat-of-the-matter example of us Gen X kids growing up too fast, the original (again animated) G.I. Joe movie had a very terse scene. The climax. It occurred when one of the principal protags—I think was Special Forces agent Flint—got shot by a COBRA operative pointblank and bled out so fast he slipped into a coma. And never returned to the film. Go figure it out.
These were animated flicks. Cartoons. And were acceptable as kids’ “entertainment” by the MPAA. Times sure have changed. Maybe a tad too much.
Word is born. Good luck finding any straightforward “serious” content in kiddie flicks nowadays, save Pixar’s output and much of that is drama driving any conflict. Now for real, I’m not trying to romanticize the past. In fact above I tried to and I don’t feel so romantic. Hold me. It was not that long ago that a hard-nosed plot element made kids think as well as entertain. Again, raise a glass to Pixar, possibly the last bastion in animated studios that “get it.” Good, if not great animated movies are both provocative as well as endearing. Once again with Pixar, the opening montage in Up speaks volumes with no voices to be heard. Prods your brain, invites you into Carl’s worldview and why. Can’t lie that it’s my fave Pixar movie, and always enduring once you own up to the message of loss and redemption. It’s not about cranky Carl. It’s not about Russell and his dim-witted Kevin. It’s all about Ellie. Chew on that.
And WALL-E is all about conspicuous consumerism. And Charlie Chaplin. Sorry about the headache.
Enough about Pixar. I mean enough about Pixar. Time to talk about the competitors, specifically DreamWorks. They’re the guys responsible for fodder like Shark Tale.
I will be polite. I am allegedly an adult now. If I was able then to deal with one of my fave actors Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir getting gored by the devil Red Bull and reviving in the drink, I can play nice now (sh*t, tell me your best bar story). I’ve learned/understood a few things as of late regarding modern animated films. I’ll get back to that after this one thought:
I never killed the school back in my junior high days suffering under the influence of watching Voltron. Nowadays I suffer this…
Oscar (Smith) has always dreamed he’d hit it big someday. Instead of toiling at Mr Sykes’ (Scorsese) Whale Wash he rather be with his head in the clouds. Jet set. Living a life of luxury at the top tier of the Great Reef. But nooooo, whales are endangered and need regular flossing. Crap in a hat.
Lenny (Black) is a shark of ethics, and has never wanted a piece of the action like his pop, Don Lino (DeNiro). Lino is the head of the local shark Mafia and his cosa nostra shakedown is pretty straightforward: gobble up fish. It’s what sharks do, except pacifist Lenny, disgrace to The Family. All he wants out of his miserable existence is to have dad’s respect. Be someone, but that means putting his conscience aside. What to do?
Well, as comedy of errors go, both Oscar and Lenny meet at the crossroads of fate. Square peg Lenny feels he has no business with the sharks, and Oscar has no business with his head in the clouds of the rich and famous. Due to accidental destiny, between them both Oscar succeeds in reaching the high life thanks to Lenny’s bumbling, and Lenny finds a new family amongst the lesser fish of the reef.
Until Don Lino and his crew come looking for his cowardly son. And the wrasse-hole that “slayed” Lenny’s big bro Frankie (Empirioli).
Now it’s all up in the foam. Well, thank goodness what the right swatch of blue can do.
Picking it up now, there were quite a few detractors who regarded Transformers: The Movie as nothing more than a glorified toy commercial. They weren’t entirely wrong. As a kid what I dug about the film (besides the collateral damage and Spike shouting “sh*t” out of panic) was not so much the prospect of new toys on the horizon and new eps on TV. Nope, it was the movie’s introduction of new characters. Consider this, really do. When you consider a film to claiming “a cast of thousands” (hyperbole aside) don’t you groan a bit at the claim? I understand it’s an old gimmick, and now a cheesy cliche, but really. Most films seldom have too many principals. If you think about it Star Wars: A New Hope only had seven leads. The film series invites grand things, but with a small, core cast. Luke, Han, Leia, Threepio, Artoo, Obi-Wan and Vader. Everyone else is just gravy, no matter how core Peter Cushing’s role of Moff Tarkin was central to the plot. Lesser fans of the movie forget about him regardless. Fanboys…never say much either. Hope was no Spartacus, and for good reason.
The core cast thing works wonders for most live-action films. There may be a lot of secondaries and extras (EG: every Woody Allen, Robert Altman and/or Lawrence Kasdan film) in big flicks with big stories, but that eyewash is only there as filler. When that formula goes awry—read: David Lynch’s Dune or DeMille’s The Ten Commandments as examples—it’s akin to getting dinner at your local Italian red sauce joint where the menu folds out like a road map atlas with over a hundred meal options taunting you. You eventually just settle on the lasagne. Like last time. Every time. Too many options.
Ah, but for animated movies it’s practically de riguer to have a “cast of thousands.” It’s always the more the merrier. Consider this, Disney’s first theatrical, animated release was Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. The title alone speaks of a broad spectrum of players. Okay, maybe not, but back in 1937 a full length feature film that was fully animated was an unusual achievement. And never mind Snow or her charges, or the Wicked Queen or Prince Charming. Instead recall that this was the 30s. There were no such tech as we have today for sound effects. An unholy host of “extras” provided bird whistles, other nature sounds and even singing as backdrop to match the soundtrack. I recently checked the manifest of voice actors, et al that provided sound for Snow White. It took 20 people—voice actors and F/X crew alike—to imbue the film with the warmth we all recollect from seeing Walt’s big deal animated movie. Not a thousand people, but you get it, and it set a standard being followed my modern animated films to this day.
Okay, okay. In short if you’ve ever seen the Toy Story films, the Shrek movies, the Madagascar flicks, Sing, Over The Hedge, and if you wanna count Despicable Me with its myriad Minions a big animated voice cast works. It’s required these days. You gotta have that cast of…tens to make sure they are sewn into the tapestry of the story. And naturally there are no small roles, small parts, just small attention spans. Those help also when trying to digest so much technicolor upchuck.
Swing and a miss.
A big vocal cast to a big feature animated movie. Sometimes it works and sometimes it “works.” Shark Tale was on a fence here. It’s not the notes its how you play blah blah blah. There was no economy of dialogue here to warrant a big cast, except for cheap, there-and-gone gags. That and this high profile cast of yeoman voice actors didn’t help move the story along. Good thing there wasn’t much of a story I guess. Look, for once I’ll upchuck all of the lousy parts from this week’s hanging and get on to the praise. Both are in equal parts BTW. I’d like to be mannered this time out.
Ahem. The story. Shark‘s is a tried-and-true plot device. Read: boring. Our two misfits from opposite sides of the tracks do some wheeler-dealing to get in good graces with the right crowd. In this case, Oscar wants to make a name for himself and Lenny wants to be accepted for who his. It’s a riff on Trading Places, or Strangers On A Train, or A Bug’s Life, before God. It’s been done before and with more panache, but was lost on Shark. It’s merely a canvas for wisecracking and getting all goofy on yo ass. There ain’t much meat on this whale fall, and for all it pluses, there is way to much filler and pandering to kids and adults alike. The story is stale and no amount of pop culture asides can redeem this tale twice told ten times over. A shame.
It’s understood that I am an unabashed Pixar fan. Beyond the cutting edge CGI, Pixar’s flicks have healthy, well-built stories with fleshed out characters and a certain plot pinion—the almighty Maguffin—that informs the entire story. With Up, Coco, Inside Out, WALL-E et al, there was a single trigger to set the story in motion. EG: Millie’s death, Coco’s fading memory of her beloved Hector’s music, Riley’s troublesome move and solitude against conspicuous consumerism respectively. Unlike Shark, these stories don’t use tropes as a crutch, but as a launchpad.
This is my issue with DreamWorks’ animated movies. It kinda goes along with the line about “cast of thousands.” As of late, there is only one DreamWorks animated I’ve loved, and oddly enough the plot is based on a million other stories (EG: our protagonist put in a responsibility to care for a troubled pet), as with a fave of mine How To Train Your Dragon, which had some weight being based on a series of books. It was a boy and his dog, classic. It’s that blues riff again. Unfortunately most of DreamWorks CGI output lacks nuance, since nuance doesn’t sell well with most animated films for a fast buck. Think again about Despicable Me and its sequels following the laws of diminishing returns.
DreamWorks as well as other animated studios of a similar ilk (EG: Illumination with those damned minions again) cage way too many pop culture riffs to serve as humor. Think Family Guy. At least with Disney/Pixar there’s some breathing room, some satori with tasteful exposition. With most DreamWorks animated flicks it’s all about flash, dash, splash and being utterly disposable. Sometimes such disposable fluff’s a welcome thing, but when there is precious little meat on the plot to begin with, and all that flash gets hella boring f*cking quick. I mean name one memorable scene in DreamWorks’ production catalog beyond Fiona singing the bird to death. Right. Gimmicks as entertainment. All of Shark‘s pop culture refs would go over the kiddies’ heads, and just came across as trying too hard.
Rough, I know. However the big deal redeeming factor of Shark is its animation. The whole movie is f*cking beautiful. The whole show is very pretty, very colorful, very vibrant. Luscious is the watchword with Shark, and majority of the budget been spent on pixels upon pixels. Sure wasn’t invested in sharp scenarists (ow!). It’s a gorgeous movie. I can’t stress that enough.
Beyond just being lovely to look at, the animation was also quite clever. Unlike Finding Nemo, our fishy friends in Shark are over top anthropomorphic and all the better for it. I loved how the character’s faces resembled their flesh-and-blood human counterparts. Oscar looked like Smith. Lenny looked like Black. Don looked like DeNiro (note the birthmark on the cheek). Check out Mr Sykes’ bushy brows. And Lola was Jolie. Amazing, and very amusing. I ain’t made outta stone, people.
Natch, voice acting always brings out the best in actors with unique voices and their cadence. For example with Shark, Smith got to ham it up to 11, channeling his inner Fresh Prince. His spin seemed almost cathartic. Let’s expel some serious goofiness akin to primal scream therapy. Well, that and taking time to skewer his public image. As did the supporting cast, especially Black whose squeaky Lenny was barely recognizable as Black himself (and for a first, no histrionics. Didn’t think it was in him).
Here’s another nifty example about healthy self-parody Shark permitted our vocal cast. For years Jolie has more or less having her acting chops be waylaid by her looks. Here we have a great parody of that dilemma. In the endgame her best roles downplay her pretty face. Ever see Malificent? What’s I’m saying—despite the weak story and splash and dash—is that the voice actors get to tear it up, make fun of their public image, or embrace it with more cheeze than the Kraft conglomerate. Yeah, the pop riffs were lame, but the execution was a delight. Kind of a weird paradox.
So what’s my final word? Well, Shark was madcap, exquisitely beautiful to watch, funny in fits and starts, freaking loud in execution (like sporting an orange shirt at the beach) and definitely all about style over substance. K loves this movie, probably for the same reasons I’ve been all meh about it. Still, what I loved about Shark was not what she liked. Call this a lesson in cinematic life: it takes all kinds. A kinds of takes. Get it?
A mild relent it. This ain’t Pixar territory here, and that’s okay. On another hand Shark Tale should be mandatory viewing for every budding CGI animation student.
The Stray Observations…
- “Is that supposed to be the Titanic?”
- “That’s not how you sing that song, mon.”
- “Nobody loves a nobody.”
- Danger: Heavy Load.
- “Go be useless somewhere else.” I must use that line at work.
- License plate. Ever see Jaws? Heh.
- Crazy Joe. Sorry, not sorry.
- What was that thing a while back when Scorsese derided the MCU as “not cinema?” Huh.
- The Whale Wash is like a dentist appointment from Hell.
The Next Time…
Why didn’t the folks at Disney call the sequel Tron 2.0 instead of Tron: Legacy? Some people don’t have a Clu.