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Shark Tale

Tired Tale Goes Belly Up

There's something oddly lifeless about Shark Tale, the latest Dreamworks entry into the CGI sweepstakes, which finds a school of pop-culture-obsessed fish struggling to protect their capitalist theme park of a society from a gang of predatory sharks. To be sure, there are plenty of contrived song-and-dance routines, buoyed by a star-studded soundtrack featuring pop heavyweights like Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige and Bob Marley, and the action is nonstop. But this tale lacks the heart and imagination that made Pixar's Finding Nemo such a joyous experience. Rarely before has a world sparkling with such vibrant colors seemed so drab.

The plot comes straight from the Hollywood assembly line: Boy meets girl. Boy tells an elaborate lie, trading integrity for fortune and fame. Boy loses girl. Boy repents, comes clean and wins back the girl, learning a Very Valuable Lesson in the process. After all, money can't buy happiness, even for a shallow boy whose lone ambition is to own a flat-screen television, a Playstation 2 and a top-floor penthouse filled with towering lava lamps.

In this case, the boy is… a fish! Will Smith lends his boisterous bellow and brash persona to Oscar, a fast-talking schemer harboring dreams of wealth, stardom and all the accompanying perks -- namely, Lola, a redheaded bombshell with all the sultry sex appeal, and the husky voice, of Angelina Jolie. Oscar is too consumed with himself to notice that he has captured the heart of his best friend Angie (Renee Zellweger), though it's hard to imagine why the true-blue Angie would ever fall for such a superficial jerk.

Things look up for Oscar when he crosses paths with Lenny (Jack Black), a tender-hearted shark who fancies himself a vegetarian, and his thuggish brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli). At the behest of his father, Don Lino (Robert DeNiro), who presides over the shark mob (yawn!) with the sensibility of a young Don Corleone, Frankie is trying to instill a bit of the familial killer instinct into his sensitive sibling, urging him to swallow Oscar whole. When Lenny demurs, Frankie is crushed by an errant anchor, and an unscathed Oscar returns home boasting that it was he did the crushing.

Oscar the Shark Slayer becomes an instant folk hero; the only problem is, he doesn't have the faintest idea how to slay a single shark, much less the motley crew that Don Lino dispatches to avenge his son's death. Together, Oscar and Lenny set the record straight, Oscar wins back the respect of the disenchanted Angie, and Don Lino learns to accept his wayward son, who dabbles in cross-dressing… as a dolphin.

Shark Tale is slick, formulaic family fare, and in lieu of any real depth of feeling, it bombards audiences with glib pop culture in-jokes, feel-good reggae hits and pounding hip-hop beats. Product placement may be an inescapable nuisance in films today, but Shark Tale flaunts its cynical commercialism for laughs, filling its underwater universe with familiar corporate logos (Coral-Cola, Kelpy Kreme, Old Wavy). And while some of the movie's endless pop references are mildly amusing, most come across as a cheap substitute for better dialogue and genuine wit. Why, for instance, does Oscar stand before his throng of admirers, clumsily reciting catchphrases from A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire and Gladiator? Since it doesn't work on any comedic level, one can safely assume that the screenwriters ran out of ideas.

Stars: 2 out of 5