Thursday, January 5, 2012

An Urban Comedy Under The Sea: Shark Tale

The Good: I'm stretching here, so I'll say "moments of humor"
The Bad: Unimpressive Animation, Obvious overused story, one-dimensional characters, just dumb
The Basics: Shark Tale should be avoided for its gross racism and sexism that attempts to fly by as "family fare."

Some time ago, it became part of popular culture to refer to all things "black" as "urban." That is to say, when people want to use a polite euphemism for "black," they say "urban." Thus, it became something strangely appropriate to talk about the language of "urban music" as opposed to saying "man, people swear a lot in that newfangled black music." Or we started to talk about "urban crime" instead of "black on black crime." Sometimes, things are just plain ridiculous.

I preface this review this way because within five minutes of beginning Shark Tale, it became obvious to me that I was watching the same "urban comedy" I've seen before. I've seen such jokes and character types in such bla . . , er, "urban" movies as Barbershop and . . . well, others that aren't coming immediately to mind. All I know is that within a few minutes of watching the protagonist in Shark Tale, I felt that someone at Dreamworks, at some meeting somewhere, said "we need to do something to bring in more money. We need to target a new audience. What audience haven't we exploited yet?" "Well, there's a black audience we've neglected." "Phil! It's 'urban!' But good idea. We could make an urban film and use all sorts of urban actors to flesh out our world. Who's the most popular urban actor of our time?" "Well, there's Denzel . . ." "What about that Fresh Prince guy? He's kind of urban?" "Yeah, he's wildly popular! Call Will Smith! We'll need a good urban actress to star along side him. Who could that be?" "Well, how about Angela Bassett? Or Vivica A. Fox?" "No, Phil, we need someone even more Urban, you know with a capital B, er, U." "How about Renee Zellweger and Angelina Jolie?" "Well, they're pretty whi . . . er, suburban, but at least they'll let us draw them as fish." "Yeah, Jolie might even complain that we made her lips too small . . ." "Shut up, Phil."

All humor aside (and if that amused even one of you, it's more than Shark Tale would do), Shark Tale is a pretty pathetic and transparent tale of Black America set under the sea. The saddest part of this incorporation is that it lacks all of the genuine social commentary that could set it apart from a decent satire or an original urban comedy. Instead, in attempting to be a "family friendly" movie, Shark Tale incorporates and reinforces much of the worst stereotypes in American Ethnic relations today.

Enter Oscar, your slacker-type, minimum wage stereotype. He is the type of lazy fish that Conservatives like to characterize all urban fish as. He is a barely-working grunt, showing up late to his job at the Whale Wash. Like other urban fish, he has maxed out his credit to loan sharks and bookies on ridiculous get-rich-quick schemes because, as any Conservative will tell you, those urban fish can't be trusted to use credit responsibly. And they're always dreaming of something better. I wonder why they do that? Oscar, being a male urban fish, is completely oblivious to the affections of Angie, another urban fish working at the Whale Wash in an administrative capacity.

The Reef, the urban area where Oscar, Angie and others live, is plagued by sharks, who in this incarnation take the stereotypical role of the Italian-descended Americans. Naturally, then, the sharks are all into organized crime, led by Don Lino, who is trying to teach his pacifistic shark son Lenny how to be ruthless enough to run the racket on the Reef. When the Don's other (more vicious) son is killed in an accident while chasing Oscar, Oscar and Lenny become buddies (in a real Eddie Murphy/Judge Rienhold way). Oscar becomes the celebrity of the Reef, Lenny gets to go into hiding and Don Lino, believing his sons have been killed, goes off with murderous rage as we all know sharks are inclined to do.

Okay, first off, the positive. I laughed once during the movie. I don't remember even what the joke was. But there was a laugh involved. And it didn't come when the vaguely homophobic reference to Lenny as a dolphin was made (hey, if the movie is going to be pretty transparently anti-Italian and anti-Bl . . . urban, why not throw in a few anti-gay pokes, too?). I laughed once.

Beyond that, there's nothing impressive about Shark Tale. Indeed, just the opposite, this is an unremarkable movie. From the outset, the animation is nowhere near as impressive as previous Pixar or Disney-Pixar movies. In their new thrust to churn out some computer-generated animated fodder at least once a year, Pixar has lost its magic for detail. In Monsters, Inc., there was a real treat seeing the film on the big screen for the impressive details. At least on the big screen, the viewer could marvel at how distinct every one of Sully's hairs were. Shark Tale lacks that level of animation detail.

Shark Tale is also disappointingly humorless. It is hard to see how even a child would find Shark Tale funny. I suppose another reason for making a "children's movie" with an "urban flavor" is that a lot of music, fashion and popular culture is taking more from popular urban culture. Little children of all ethnicities have baggy jeans and basketball jerseys and know what "bling-bling" is (though the origins of the latter term, as a poignant moment on The Wayne Brady Show illustrated, has its origins in the early portions of the previous century's monied classes). Perhaps even whites do not get off scot-free in this movie if the slow, rich whales are the metaphor for caucasians.

But there is something to the argument that Shark Tale is perpetrating dangerous stereotypes under the guise of the same old stupid "rags to riches" story. I was concerned that perhaps I was putting forward an argument that was not necessarily there, but the more I consider this movie, the more disturbing and dangerous I think it may be. Just about every subculture portrayed in Shark Tale is from a minority (save women) and none is portrayed positively. Here, in frank language, is how Shark Tale pervades and reinforces terrible ideas about how people who aren't white live:

Black Americans - characterized, or caricatured, by Oscar (voiced by Will Smith) are portrayed as lazy, poor, and not terribly cunning. Oscar is an opportunist who lies, is caught in his lie, lies some more, comes up with a crazy scheme to continue perpetrating his lies, until he is put in a situation where he is in danger and he folds like a cheap card table. And at the end of the character's journey from rags to riches, he is put back in his place, servicing the whales. The difference between Oscar at the beginning of the movie and at the end is that at the beginning he has real dreams for advancement and riches and living in the skyrise, and at the end, finding himself back at the Whale Wash as the new owner of the facility, he finds that he can dream, but only so far. In the greatest work of American Literature (my obviously unbiased opinion), Invisible Man (reviewed here!), Ellison writes the line of the Black Predicament in the business world, "Please hope him to death, and keep him running." The idea there is that the key to controlling the oppressed minorities (especially true of the economically disadvantaged) is to give them hope, but no real hope for progress. Shark Tale reinvents this idea that Ellison wrote about in 1947 through Oscar by dashing Oscar's dreams, but leaving him positive about where he is left. So, Oscar goes from the bottom of the sea, to the top of the Reef and ends up back at the bottom of the reef, but feels better about it because now he has slightly more of a stake in it. If the trend held, any Shark Tale sequel would have to, by necessity, begin with Oscar near to losing the Whale Wash (probably through his irresponsibility) and then ending with him reclaiming the small business. Shark Tale illustrates how complacent the masses of poor and predominantly Black Americans may be kept in their place by simply turning their dreams of equality into minority partners in the worst possible businesses in America. And that suits such ill-educated and lazy people anyway, if Shark Tale is any indication.

Women - fare no better in Shark Tale as characterized by three personas: Angie, Lola, and Katie Current. Angie (Zellweger) is intelligent but refuses to express herself. Indeed, she is characterized as demure, subservient (or at the very least deferential) to Oscar in all things and lacking in confidence in her own abilities and beauty. She has a crush on Oscar, wants to help him out, but only expresses her true love for him through violent, irrational outbursts when she has pushed him away. Moreover, her affections for Oscar compel her to remain silent when she learns of his duplicities rather than exposing him. Men, rejoice! Women won't turn you in if you pay them lip service from time to time. Show them the least amount of affection and they'll trail you like puppies. Except, that is, for the type like Lola (Angelina Jolie). Lola is a golddigger type explicitly (through music) characterized as a woman who is only after money. Of course, an urban fish like Oscar just sees good tail and will go after it, never thinking of the consequences. And then there's the annoying cameos by Katie Currant (Katie Couric), who is pushy and invasive as the lead reporter on the Reef. If her real shows are like the parody here, one wonders who watches her shows. So, to clarify, women in Shark Tale are either deferential, spineless and starved for attention or emotionless predators hungry for men's money or just plain annoying.

Italian-Americans - are simply brutish mobsters. The sharks in Shark Tale are the parody of Americans of Italian decent. Allow me to preface this by saying my view on the Italian-American Defamation League's problems with The Sopranos was an overreaction: "The Sopranos" never tried to characterize all Italian-Americans as gangsters, merely exploring that sect of Americans of Italian decent who happen to be mobsters and how they operate. Conversely, Shark Tale characterizes all sharks as mobsters (save Lenny, who is something of a pouf). Robert De Niro voices Don Lino and helps to perpetrate the stereotype of Italians as ruthless, family-loving mobsters who will terrorize those who they can hold any sort of power over, including their own assistants (characterized by an octopus in Shark Tale). The sharks solve their problems through asserting dominance and threats, respecting only strength and having a fiery temper.

Homosexuals - might be a bit of a stretch in Shark Tale, but Lenny (Jack Black) is played as an effeminate shark who disguises himself as a dolphin to leave the shark mob. The most obvious implication is that the pacifistic Lenny is somehow less of a man, a common stereotype about gays that the rabid homophobics never seem to spread when confronted with the athletic (and clearly masculine) sect of gays who place an emphasis on bodybuilding and fitness. Lenny is a caricature with a faint lisp, enthusiasm for dressing up and also happens to be an unmanly vegetarian.

Jews - what is far less opaque is the stereotype of Jews in Shark Tale. Since well before the time of Shakespeare, Jews have been characterized as the business-people, the money lenders, the people who are good with money and seem to have the financial advantage over everyone else. Martin Scorsese plays the pufferfish Sykes who is both an agent and a money lender. He is the common link between Don Lino and Oscar, the middleman between the Reef and the Mob. Which, if we've learned anything from the ethnic stereotypes in Shark Tale is appropriate. After all, who better to deal with the money of two vastly disparate groups as Blacks and Italians than a Jew?

And the final nail in the ethnic culture might well be Sykes' assistants. Two Rastafarian jellyfish who act as muscle for the Jewish accountant. Well, at least Shark Tale was smart enough to avoid any allegations of promoting hate crimes. After all, if a little urban fish is assaulted by Jamaican Immigrant jellyfish, it's not really a hate crime. It's "those people" doing it to themselves. And popular culture seems to have little problem with depictions of black on black crime, er, make that "urban on urban violence."

Shame on Shark Tale and those involved with it for their lack of foresight and transparent poor depictions of so many different ethnicities. For some of us, positive relations between all peoples - regardless of color, gender, sexuality or country of origin - is more than some fish story.

For other animated Dreamworks films, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Hoodwinked Too! Hood Vs. Evil
Shrek Forever After


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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