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MOVIE REVIEW

Charmless and insulting, 'Shark' lacks biting wit

The marketing campaign leading up to "Shark Tale," Dreamworks' new grab for your child's mindshare -- sorry, Dreamworks' new digitally animated entertainment -- seems more relentless than usual. There are TV spots, Burger King toys, video games across all platforms, and, if I'm not mistaken, the great white shark seen swimming off Naushon Island has the studio logo tattooed on its fin. Maybe the folks who gave us "Shrek" want to avoid confusion with a certain Oscar-winning Pixar movie set under the sea. Or perhaps they want to build on it; I recently overheard a child ask his mother, "Is that the sequel to `Finding Nemo'?"

No, kid, it's not -- it's "Finding Nemo" gutted of all its charm and remixed for urban hit radio. "Shark Tale" is a film calculated to give us a good time, and it's the calculation that spoils the fun. Where "Nemo" was clever, soulful, and marvelous to look at, "Tale" is manic and surprisingly ugly, with a script that leans on the shallowest aspects of hip-hop street cred while pimping for corporate product placement at every turn. Yes, your children will probably enjoy it, but do you really want to feed them more of the throwaway crud culture they get every single day?

The setting's an ocean reef made over to look like a submerged Times Square, complete with a red-and-white "Coral Cola" billboard and live news feed featuring Katie Current (voiced by Katie Couric). Will Smith lends his rubbery vocal talents to the role of Oscar, a lowly employee at a whale-wash run by a pufferfish named Sykes (filmmaker Martin Scorsese, dithering amusingly). A schemer who dreams of making it rich and living in gold-chained glory "at the top of the reef," Oscar is too starry-eyed to see that fellow employee Angie (Renee Zellweger) is in love with him.

Instead, Oscar bets a wad on a seahorse race and loses, ending up in the hole to Sykes's bosses, a shark mob overseen by Don Lino (Robert De Niro). The Don has two sons, tough-guy Frankie (Michael Imperioli, Christafuh from "The Sopranos" himself) and wimpy vegetarian embarrassment Lenny (Jack Black). Through a "Brave Little Tailor"-style misunderstanding, Oscar becomes renowned throughout the reef as "The Shark Slayer," all the while hiding Lenny from his family and the rest of the fish population.

A couple of Italian-American organizations, the Columbus Citizens Foundation and the Order Sons of Italy in America, have publicly censured Dreamworks for rolling out the old mobster stereotypes in "Shark Tale." That's the least of the film's problems. Personally, I'd think African-American audiences would be insulted by the way "Tale" presents Oscar as a slick, obnoxious cartoon "playa." Parents might be put off by the gang of adorable little-kid fishes who run around tagging graffiti on the walls (excellent role modeling, Dreamworks!). And everyone should be properly creeped out by the corporate logos all over the place, starting with the bag of Krispy Kremes that lands prominently on Angie's desk.

The Writers Guild, for its part, might want to file a protest over a screenplay that substitutes lazy media cross-referencing for actual dialogue. At one moment of shark-killing triumph, Oscar says, in succession, "Are you not entertained? You can't handle the truth! You had me at `Hello,' " and we're supposed to surmise -- what? That the writers have seen the same movies we have? "Shark Tale" takes the punning, pop-culture-crazy wit of "Shrek" and dumbs it down until it's just another way to sell, and the only upside is that the whole thing will be out of date by Christmas.

Smith overdoes his role, but the rest of the all-star cast is fine, and there are individual laughs to be had, like atolls in a barren stretch of ocean. Sykes's henchmen, two Rasta jellyfish played by Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley, are the offbeat highlight of the film, even if it's possible from under water to hear Marley's dad rolling in his grave. It's also cute that many characters share physical attributes with the actors voicing them -- De Niro's mole, Scorsese's eyebrows, Smith's ears (morphed into fins here). This still doesn't keep them from looking like creepy little mutants. Angelina Jolie's supposedly va-va-va-voom vamp Lola is one scary piece of sushi, and the appearance of Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilera as singing fish during the end credits may have put me off seafood for good.

The marquee value alone will probably make the film a hit, but "Shark Tale" is an ick-thyological experience nevertheless. It's a movie so instantly disposable you could wrap it in yesterday's newspaper.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

A Shark's Tale
*1/2

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