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Mean Reefs 

by Ed Symkus

As seems to happen with every new computer-animated film that's released, the boundaries of the craft have again been stretched. The colors are brighter, the characters are sharper, the sets are more stunning. That the story is a little flat, compared to such witty scripts as the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, and DreamWorks' own Shrek series, won't keep crowds away. Still, that glitch might lessen the overall financial success of this one.

Shark Tale takes place mostly in two underwater areas -- a fish-populated recreation of Times Square (complete with a sushi bar that everyone stays away from), where all of the good guys live, and a sunken ocean liner (a friend said that it's the Titanic, but I didn't catch that), where all the villains congregate.

It's in this sea-world that the film's two major stories take place and eventually become entwined. Oscar (voice of Will Smith) is the happy-go-lucky fish who toils away at the whale wash while dreaming of reaching bigger, wealthier heights. Angie (Renee Zellweger) also works there and has a thing for Oscar, but she doesn't let on, and he doesn't know.

Over at the ocean liner, great white shark Don Lino (Robert De Niro) is making plans to hand over the family business to his sons, Frankie (Michael Imperioli) and Lenny (Jack Black). Problem is that Frankie's a tough shark, but Lenny's a gentle soul -- wouldn't eat a fly; in fact, he's a vegetarian.

The crisis that propels the film happens when Frankie heads out with Lenny to turn him into a real shark, to get him to eat another fish. It just so happens that Oscar, having run up a bad debt and now in dire straits over it, turns out to be the tidbit Frankie wants Lenny to eat. But there's an accident. In the film's only hint of a human presence -- and its only death - those who live above the surface drop a whopper of a plot change into the sharks' world.

Lenny is traumatized, and disappears. Oscar, waiting for his chance to really be someone, goes for fortune and fame by announcing that he killed the dreaded Frankie, that he should now be referred to as a shark slayer (which was the original title for the film). And it's here that the first of the film's moral lessons is handed out: Don't lie.

Oh, Oscar gets what he wants, but it comes with a steep price, since his loud and constant bragging makes its way to Don Lino, who now wants to know who this shark slayer is that killed his son.

Don't worry, the film doesn't go all gloomy. It's a comedy, and despite a little delving into darkness, it stays a comedy. There are ridiculous characters all around the main ones, from Crazy Joe, the crab to Sykes (Martin Scorsese), who puffs up to three times his size when he's excited -- for more comic effect, his voice also shoots up an octave.

Speaking of Scorsese, besides his spirited performance, the animators have nicely caught his likeness in Sykes, so the fish has big bushy eyebrows. It's the same with De Niro's Don Lino, who has a mole on his right cheek, and with Smith's Oscar, whose fins look like funny little ears. Smith is great, but De Niro, with not very much voice time, doesn't appear to give it his all. His shark could easily have been much more menacing.

The filmmakers have also gone for other, more subtle sight gags. Some are lame, like a magazine called News Reef but others are great, such as the undersea Postal Service logo, which is now a dolphin instead of an eagle, or the scene in which Luca the octopus pours himself a cup of tea, but the dark liquid just floats away in the water. On the verbal side, there's the funny use of the Jaws theme by the sharks. And there are all of those Sopranos-like phrases like fuggedaboudit and badda-bing, badda-boom that are uttered by the sharks and are getting Italian-American groups in a tizzy with complaints of negative stereotyping.

But that's really not what the film is about. The bad guys remain solidly in the background. Their presence is nothing more than a satire on Marlon Brando and the people surrounding him in The Godfather.This is an uplifting story focusing on Oscar and Lenny, and their eventual understanding that you should be yourself, you shouldn't lie and you should love your family. It may not be the best film of its kind, but it offers solid entertainment for adults. For kids, it includes plenty of laughs they'll get, too.

Publication date: 09/30/04

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