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Shark Attacks!

Shark Tale has been viciously criticised for being shallow, short-sighted, shameless and heartless - citing minority stereotypes, narrative clichÈs, pop culture name-drops and emotional emptiness. With both a sneer and a smile, it could be considered the most cynical piece of 3D animation yet.

The film's title itself should be fair warning - it's the ruthless media headline summing up the day's story: Oscar (Will Smith), the bling bling whale-washing fish who dreams of coral reef castle life, takes credit for killing a shark and expects everything to be fine and dandy, but of course it isn't. For starters, the dead shark was the firstborn son of mafioso godfather Don Lino (Robert De Niro), who is left ashamed of his only surviving next-of-kin Lenny (Jack Black), a pudgy, closet vegetarian by principle, who refuses to continue the family business and prefers to dress like a dolphin. Meanwhile Oscar's new found fame and fortune alienate his secret admirer, the pure-hearted angelfish Angie (RenÈe Zellweger), while attracting the sexy fish fatale Lola (Angelina Jolie), who's a voluptuous metis of lion fish and dragonfish. Get the picture?

It's a movie with a news story angle, the catchy cover feature kind with starry faces, plenty of popular references and the old familiar themes of remembering your roots, just being yourself, loving others for who they are and, last but not least, fish are friends not food! Spectacular scenes of underwater adaptation, such as the galloping seahorse racetrack and the all-consuming whale wash, reunite the underwater gang in soapy song. The characters rattle off irony-loaded dialogue, the soundtrack sizzles with The Godfather, Car Wash and Jaws, and Times Square flashes product placement in badly punning billboards. It's a full-blown pop culture parody packaged in a wet dream of trite clichÈs, but it's also paced to a furious beat.

So I'll assume that it knows very well what it's doing when it's saying nothing. Hollywood cynicism says the audience is always smarter than the film, so the movie doesn't dwell on the moral of the fairy tale, let alone on the details of the plot. As if to remind you it's all just a scoop of cheap thrills, the story is aggressively commentated by swimming reporter Katie Current, as voiced by and modelled on NBC's Today Show anchor Katie Couric. The film probably appeals more to adults than to kids, confirming what we already know (and are ashamed to admit) with its technical wizardry. I prefer to think it's without pretensions - or rather, without ambitions, other than showing off its animation skills. Which it does.

Not quite the Disney and Lasseter executive-branded Pixar and even less the auteurist Incredibles, Shark Tale boasts not one but three Dreamworks directors (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman), supported by a burgeoning Southern Californian campus full of animators and technicians. To Pixar's A Bug's Life, Dreamworks buzzed out Antz; to Pixar's Finding Nemo, Dreamworks has spat out Shark Tale. But who's comparing?

"We have a different approach to creating a film through star power," says Ben Cheung, Shark Tale's Hong Kong born technical director, who worked on the film for the past two years. "That's also what makes these films challenging, compared with Shrek, because nobody knows how an ogre is supposed to move. It's a lot more difficult with human beings, and even more so with these creatures that are both fish and human, shifting suddenly from swimming to walking."

But Shark Tale was more than a mere exercise in anthropomorphism, as Ben adds: "When you're casting super stars, a lot of work goes into creating all the animation subtleties required to match the way they move - like making a shark snarl like Robert De Niro!" Not to worry, spectators will no doubt recognise not only Don Lino's obvious mole but also his snarl, as well as Oscar's ears, Lenny's pot belly, blowfish Sykes' (Martin Scorsese) eyebrows, jellyfish Ernie's (Ziggy Marley) dreadlocks and Lola's luscious lips. The cross-species performances resulting from all the subtle moves between them are purely delightful. Naturally then, the luscious lips of the lovely ladyfish murmur what is certainly the movie's deliciously truest line: "Deep down, I'm superficial."

Shark Tale opens on December 16.

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