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A pleasant, but bland, catch

Shark Tale is zippy, colorful and packed with pop references, but it's no Finding Nemo. It's as if DreamWorks spied Disney and Pixar Animation Studios reeling in a whopper, waited for them to leave, then dropped a line in the same box office fishing hole. Same bait, same technique, but the catch that counts already got away.

Do we laugh at Shark Tale? Occasionally. Are we emotionally involved in the story and characters as with Finding Nemo? Never. The difference is clear: Finding Nemo was an odyssey, a quest for something deeper, richer in the lives of its main characters. Shark Tale is a plot, which is a good thing for a movie to possess but not enough to make it special. Odysseys are mythic, touching elements of our shared consciousness. Plots are mechanical, a means of sustaining a movie to a proper running time.

Even then, four Shark Tale screenwriters can't fill 90 minutes with an escalating or even evolving plot. They're content with ideas _ mobsters are like sharks, man-of-wars resemble Rastafarians, a reef is something like a city _ and happy to surrender the screen to pop song interludes rather than expand those ideas. Any fishing trip is fun until you don't catch anything worth keeping.

The movie does possess loads of personality, mostly the result of reshaping familiar movie types into animated fish. Will Smith's cheery ego is fine for the role of Oscar, a tongue scrubber working at the whale wash (cue the Rose Royce ripoff number) who wants to live, well, like Will Smith, with penthouse parties and plenty of bling. His dialogue is snappy but superficial, a Henny Youngman compared to Finding Nemo's Bill Cosby style.

Nobody except Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro could voice a Godfather-style shark named Don Lino, and Brando is dead. Oscar's pal-who-wants-to-be-more Angie is drawn to Renee Zellweger's specs, right down to the squinty eyes. Martin Scorsese, who never met a comedy he could direct, is a pleasant surprise as Sykes, the mob hanger-on.

And it must be noted that Angelina Jolie is as sexy in scales as she is in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow's black leather.

Other characters are one-joke stereotypes; Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug as those dreadlocked man-of-wars are the best, while Jack Black as Don Lino's sensitive son Lenny is the least effective (maybe they should have superimposed his pliable face on the shark body). The rest are merely stunt casting: Why not hire Tony Soprano's goodfellas for Don Lino's capos, or Katie Couric as a sycophant newscaster? Any insults to Italian-Americans, black culture, homosexuals and Couric are minor and intentional, but at least Couric had access to the script.

Yet, as noted, Shark Tale is a plot movie, so the fact that personality gets first billing reveals something about the inadequacies of the story line. Oscar gets his chance to be a big fish after Lenny's brother is accidentally killed by a dropped anchor. Oscar takes credit, falsely earning fame and the nickname Sharkslayer. Lenny needs to lie low so Don Lino won't know he's a failure. The unlikely pair uses each other to unimaginatively scam their respective cultures until, predictably, the truth is revealed and eagerly accepted.

Not much there to tug the heartstrings or, better yet, allow viewers to relate to the action on screen. Shark Tale is a bright, shiny bauble that didn't even fascinate some children at a Monday night screening for long. Finding Nemo was a string of pearls with a universal clasp of parental and childish fears. One's a fish tank and the other's a Jacques Cousteau fantasy with humor and heart. Both are fun in their own ways, but you have to deal with the mess only after Shark Tale.

SHARK TALE

GRADE: B

DIRECTORS: Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman

CAST: Voices of Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Robert De Niro, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, Katie Couric, Doug E. Doug, Ziggy Marley

SCREENPLAY: Rob Letterman, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift, Michael J. Wilson

RATING: PG; crude humor, mild violence

RUNNING TIME: 90 min.

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