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Friday, October 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Tom Keogh
Many parents are familiar with the Birthday Paradox. Spend a lot of time, money and effort organizing a fantastic birthday party for a small child balloons, ponies, clowns, 20 close pals, a mountain of wrapped gifts and what do you get? A guest of honor overwhelmed by it all, reduced to sobbing and the stamping of feet.
I felt the same way watching "Shark Tale." The filmmakers are just so, so terribly good to the audience that the animated feature from DreamWorks crosses the line between "generous" and "pushy," veering off toward the land of Get Outta My Face. It tries too hard to be our friend by topping itself scene after scene.
Do we really need Robert De Niro in yet another ironic role, playing a scary character in a comedy? Not only does "Shark Tale" think so, it casts De Niro's most important collaborator, Martin Scorsese who has directed him in many films, including "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull" (for which De Niro won a best-actor Oscar) as the legendary actor's comic partner in cute mob banter. ("What?" "What what?")
Sure, the idea sounded good in those summer trailers: De Niro as a Mafia shark (literally) and Scorsese as a motormouth puffer fish. But now that "Shark Tale" is here, the inside joke comes across as forced and embarrassing. But then everything about "Shark Tale" has the subtlety and grace of a sledge hammer.
Will Smith is barely controlled as the gleeful voice of Oscar, a garrulous little fish in a dead-end job scrubbing grungy whale teeth. Like the runt heroes in Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and "A Bug's Life," Oscar dreams of bigger things, but his hustler sensibility gets in the way of noticing his blessings. Among these is the unrequited love of Angie (a playful Renée Zellweger, best thing about this film), an angel fish.
As Alfred Hitchcock showed us in "Rear Window," some guys won't fall for a woman until she's in danger, and Angie is in deep after De Niro's Don Lino (who, it must be said, looks like James Gandolfini) takes her hostage.
The problem: One of Don Lino's two sons, Frankie (Michael Imperioli, Gandolfini's co-star on "The Sopranos"), has been killed by a dropped anchor, but blowhard Oscar claims to have slain him. Frankie's brother, Lenny (Jack Black), a gentle vegetarian who dresses up as a dolphin, buys his independence from Don Lino by letting dad think Oscar rubbed him out, too. Angie's abduction forces a showdown between these principals, and there are merry chases and much opening of sincere dialogues. (Young children, incidentally, might find a couple of Don Lino's more wrathful moments a little just a little scary.)
This cardboard story manages to lurch along under a tidal wave of self-congratulatory hipness and excessive charm. Oscar and Angie live in a wacky fish town where ocean-related puns never cease, everyone jabbers at once, and marketing fodder (like Angelina Jolie's femme fatale, Lola, or a pair of Rastafarian jellyfish voiced by Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley) has no vitality.
The overall effect is cluttered, claustrophobic and self-referential. "Shark Tale" is a movie that entertains itself.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
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