'Shark Tale' gets harpooned by pop culture overkill

I wonder if companies get a discount for product placement when they're being parodied by underwater creatures.

That would explain why "Shark Tale" is packed to the gills with so many of these ads.

Logo replicas for Coral-Cola, Kelpie Kreme donuts, Gup jeans and Preparation O ointment pollute the landscape of this animated comedy. The movie is so reliant on pop culture for its humor that the filmmakers exploit any topical reference that can be twisted into a tropical reference.

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Even "The Flintstones" had a few actual witty lines thrown in amid the rock and stone puns.

It doesn't take long for DreamWorks' latest effort to begin these shout-outs. In the opening scene a shark is seen looming behind a baited worm while the "Jaws" theme creeps onto the soundtrack. The shark turns out to be Lenny (voiced by Jack Black), son of the underwater underworld boss Don Lino (Robert De Niro). Lenny is a vegetarian and wants no part of the family business.

Meanwhile, a small fish with big dreams named Oscar (Will Smith) is hoping to pay off a debt to a puffer fish (Martin Scorsese) and his two Jellyfish henchman (Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley). After they leave him for shark bait, a misunderstanding leads the whole reef to believe that Oscar killed a great white. He is dubbed a shark slayer and begins enjoying his newfound fame -- but he also makes a powerful enemy in Don Lino.

While the idea of doing a mob movie with sea creatures is viable, "Shark Tale" is no more compelling than any third-rate crime comedy. Having a cast full of people affiliated with classics such as "The Godfather II" and "Goodfellas" and TV's "The Sopranos" only reinforces how derivative the project is.

The most distressing thing about this seemingly harmless flick is how it serves as a vehicle for teaching kids about stereotyping.

Oscar is a standard bling-blinging loudmouth who desperately craves the Puff Daddy lifestyle. While the younger "black" fish spend their days spray painting the neighborhood, one tells Oscar, "You so broke, yo' baloney has no first name." This set-up provides plenty of opportunities for Oscar to name-drop an array of hip-hop artists and mire himself in street talk more appropriate for a "Method & Red" episode.

He's about as progressive a character as Jimmy "J.J." Walker was on "Good Times" -- ironically one of the few shows NOT to be alluded to in the movie. (They could have called it "Cod Times.")

Movie

Shark Tale * 1/2

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A-list stars lend their voices to this sub-"Nemo" flick about a small fish who convinces people he's a shark slayer. The animated movie is utterly reliant on pop culture for its humor, exploiting any topical reference that can be twisted into a tropical reference (i.e. Kelpie Kreme donuts) in place of writing material that is genuinely clever.

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There is also a pair of jellyfish who speak with Rastafarian accents and act as if they are perpetually stoned and prone to senseless violence.

Of course, all the Italians in the cast play mobsters.

The lone aspect that prevents the film from being a total disaster is its visual look.

It is more cartoonish than the gorgeously realistic "Finding Nemo" -- to which it will be inevitably compared -- yet there is a nice mix of color and creativity in the design of the picture.

This is best represented by the character of Lola, a gold-digging party girl voiced by Angelina Jolie. While the others simply look like expressive fish, she has more of a mermaid appearance, with long purple fins that move around her like a luxurious hairstyle.

She ranks up there with Jessica Rabbit in the animated sex goddess department.

It would be unfair to say the feature isn't without some entertaining moments. A sea horse race is edited together rather innovatively. And I enjoyed the hermit crab character, who is portrayed as a crazy homeless guy who interjects non sequitur commentary at ripe moments. (Is this also a stereotype?)

But by the end of the film it wasn't my stomach that was hurting from laughter; it was my butt that was sore from the pop culture/product placement spanking I was enduring.

Perhaps a nice dab of Preparation O could cure that.

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