Fish are at the top of the food chain in the cultural pool these days. Every pediatrician's office in the country now has at least one little Nemo swimming around in its waiting room tank. "Sherman's Lagoon," which features a pair of middle-class sharks getting their jollies by pulling pranks on "hairless beach apes," is a favorite Sunday comic strip. And SpongeBob SquarePants' undersea environs decorate a gazillion toddlers' bedrooms.
Now add DreamWorks' Shark Tale to the tally. In it, two deep-sea worlds collide when a thin-finned hustler fish named Oscar meets a wide-bodied great white shark called Lenny. At the time of their first encounter, Oscar is hog-tied and in the process of being tortured by a couple of jellyfish goons who work for Oscar's puffer fish bookie, Sykes. Lenny's being trained by his brother, Frankie, to be a mobster (their dad is the don). When they stumble upon poor Oscar, things start happening pretty fast. Frankie orders Lenny to eat Oscar. Lenny refuses. (He gets queasy every time he contemplates eating meat.) And then, quite suddenly, a speeding boat anchor terminates Frankie.
When Oscar gets back to his home in the South Reef, he tells everyone that he killed Frankie, an act of uncommon valor that turns him into a hero. But when dear daddy don (a stone-cold-killer shark named Lino) finds out his beloved son is dead, he vows revenge.
Before he wriggles his way into fame and fortune, Oscar works at a whale wash. Angel fish Angie works there, too, and has been Oscar's friend for years. After he turns into a big shot, a dragon fish going by the name Lola sashays sexily in and lays claim to his affections. The resulting triangle is used to make the point that the only friends (and lovers) worth having are those who love you for you, not for your money, and stick with you through thick and thin. Oscar's a little dense, and doesn't pick up on that simple truth at first, but by film's end he's back in Angie's fins where he belongs.
Oscar is a bit of a gambler (sea horse races are his weakness), but the habit is shown to bring him only pain and suffering. Likewise, the big lie that he tells about slaying the shark brings him lots of "good" things at first, but its long-term ramifications show its true colors.
Oscar may learn everything the hard way, but Angie lives her life on a higher plane. She's a great friend. She calls Oscar on his deception as soon as she finds out about it. And she refuses to get caught up in the glitz that trails behind Oscar while he's the big man on campus.
A song lyric references palm readings. Prayer is (facetiously) recommended.
Lola's a sultry temptress, and uses her body to full advantage. She's not quite Jessica Rabbit, but she's close. Seeing her working her magic, a shark remarks, "If I wasn't married ..." Locking lips with Oscar, Lola passionately makes out with him, pinning him under her body. (Oscar also kisses Angie, but the moment isn't anywhere near as steamy.) Singers dance sensuously. Hanging on Sykes' wall is a painting of a human woman wearing a very low-cut gown. A whale gurgles, "It's mating season and I'm feeling lucky." Terms such as "you want some of that" and "get your freak on" are used a few times. Song lyrics highlight the sexual attributes of such things as "big butts."
In the words of wafflemovies.com's Willie Waffle, "If your kid sees the comic side of mafia vengeance killing, the whole family will have a great time" watching Shark Tale. Indeed, this violence is darker and more ominous than what is typically found in genre bedfellows such as Finding Nemo or the Shrek movies. Things rapidly escalate beyond the standard, expected scenes showing sharks crashing into obstacles while trying to devour other fish. Frankie smacks his brother around several times before getting killed by the anchor. Oscar and Lenny orchestrate a mock fight that has the two of them destroying quite a bit of urban property. Angry with Oscar, Lola repeatedly smashes his face into a window. Angie is kidnapped and imprisoned. Most disturbing, though, are scenes showing Sykes' henchmen torturing Oscar by striking him and shocking him with their tentacles. They obviously relish their work, and make great sport out of inflicting pain. Oscar winds up bruised and humiliated.
Crude or Profane Language
The phrase "what the ...?" is begun but not completed. "Halibut" is said instead of "h--- of it." Also swimming around are "moron," "holy mackerel" and "screwing around." "Oh my gosh" is turned into something of a catchphrase. Comforting the grieving Lino, a shark rails against Frankie's unknown killer, saying, "May his stinking, maggot-covered corpse rot in the fiery depths of hell."
Drug and Alcohol Content
A champagne cork pops before a sea horse race. A toast is made. A shark smokes.
Other Negative Elements
Unfair and unhealthy stereotyping does a disservice to African Americans and Italian Americans. Sykes demeans Oscar by showing him a chart that has him placed lower than "whale poop." As noted, it's positive that Oscar learns that a big lie gets you nowhere fast, but many "smaller" deceptions and "little white" lies are glossed over as if they are merely part of what happens in life. Music is provided by a few questionable entertainers including Christina Aguilera, Missy Elliot and Eminem's group D12. Young fish paint graffiti on walls and whales. (Even after being reprimanded by Oscar for doing so, they continue.) An elderly shark breaks wind, knocking out a companion with the smell. A scared oily octopus "inks himself." A whale spews goo when he belches.
Shark Tale won't be Finding Nemo anytime soon. Nothing here, from the animation to the one-liners to the character development, can swim fast enough to catch up to that kind of excellence. "Shark Tale feels borrowed, sampled and dittoed from the collective funniness of the past 10 years in studio-made animation," contends Desson Thomson for the Washington Post. Neither will it appeal to very many children—at least not on their level. "It's strange that a kid-oriented film would be based on parody of a 1972 gangster movie for adults," writes Roger Ebert. "Strange, too, that the movie's values also seem to come from The Godfather, a study in situational ethics that preferred good gangsters with old-fashioned values (the Corleone family) to bad gangsters who sold drugs. Sure, it would be better for your kids to grow up to be more like Don Vito than Scarface, but what a choice."
Clearly, the discussion surrounding Shark Tale isn't about its originality and sense of story or it's kid-friendliness. So what is that loud buzzing sound all about? It's about whether or not Lenny is supposed to symbolize a "coming-out-of-the-closet" gay.
Lenny's just not like all the other sharks in the sea, you see. He's a vegetarian, for starters. He enjoys dressing up like a dolphin and he loves socializing with fish far below him on the food chain. The movie's advertising proclaims, "He's a different kind of shark." He's a shark "afraid to 'come out' as a vegetarian to his mob boss father," writes themovieboy.com's Dustin Putman, who's convinced that Lenny's eating and dressing preferences are "slyly standing in for the experiences many go through in coming to terms with their sexual orientation." I'm not going to argue with that assessment. Lenny's need for "tolerance" is a plot point that stays too long in the center of this movie's current for me to conclude anything different.
Let me be clear. Subtle clues as to why Lenny acts the way he does are easily identified. But Lenny is never called gay onscreen, and he never deals with his sexuality in any specific way. Had this movie been released 20 years ago, nobody would have been calling attention to this subject. That was a time in which a story about a shark who just doesn't fit in could have been used to teach children that we should all value and learn from the differences we find in our classmates and neighbors. Back then those disparities were things such as skin color, nose length, glasses thickness and geographical accents. Now the differences that our kids are being taught to appreciate and embrace aren't always physical ones, they're spiritual and moral.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
voices of Will Smith as Oscar; Robert De Niro as Don Lino; Renée Zellweger as Angie; Jack Black as Lenny; Angelina Jolie as Lola; Martin Scorsese as Sykes; Katie Couric as Katie Current; Doug E. Doug as Bernie; Peter Falk as Don Brizzi
Bibo Bergeron ( ), Rob Letterman ( )