Shark Tale

“Shark Tale” probably isn’t a copy of “Finding Nemo,” since these computer-animated dealies take a long time and the films were in production simultaneously. Still, “Nemo” made it to theaters a year sooner, did the job better, and is by far the better film. “Shark Tale” is not an imitator, technically, but it sure feels like one — not just of “Finding Nemo,” but of the Pixar films in general.

Will Smith plays Will Smith again, only this time it’s a Will Smith named Oscar. He is a fish at the low end of the food chain in an undersea, pun-filled version of New York City. (Everyone talks on “shell phones” instead of cell phones, and they hear the results not of the Gallup Pool, but of the “Scallop Poll”! Do you love seafood wordplay? Hope so, ’cause there’s lots of it!) Oscar works at a whale wash (like a car wash, but with, you know, whales), scrubbing tongues. It’s not glamorous. He makes very little money. He’s a nobody, but he wants to be a somebody. “Small fish/big pond” references are made.

Meanwhile, there is a shark named Lenny (Jack Black) who is the black sheep in a family of great whites. The sharks are the Mafia of the ocean, it seems, and though Lenny is being groomed by his father Don Lino (Robert De Niro) to take over the family business of extortion and racketeering, Lenny is in fact a simpering vegetarian rather than a ruthless killing machine.

Eventually, the fates of Oscar and Lenny meet. Oscar is on hand when Lenny’s brother is killed by an anchor, and Oscar takes credit for the death, making him a hero in the shark-fearing fish world. He’s a somebody now, earning the attention of a golddigger seductress named Lola (Angelina Jolie), much to the dismay of his just-a-friend female pal Angie (Renee Zellweger). His whale-wash boss, a puffer fish named Sykes (Martin Scorsese), becomes his manager.

Lenny gets an idea: He wants to hide out from his family, and Oscar wants to perpetuate his image as a shark-killer. They arrange for Oscar to “kill” Lenny, who will in fact go into hiding, thus filling both parties’ wishes. But of course these plans never go the way you want them to, and hilarity ensues. Or something.

I enjoyed the energetic performances from Black and Scorsese, but everyone else is just phoning it in, particularly Will Smith, who has simply played the wise-cracking playa too many times (though admittedly never in animated form until now). And the fact is, Rob Letterman and Damian Shannon’s screenplay simply tries too hard. I note Bernie and Ernie (voices of Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley), jellyfish whose tentacles are made to look like dreadlocks and who speak Jamaicanly. The film does everything it can to present them as its break-out memorable supporting characters — everything, that is, except give them truly clever or funny dialogue. We seem to be expected to love them simply because they’re so WACKY — they’re JELLYFISH, but they’re also RASTAFARIANS!!!! — and not because of anything they actually DO. The movie is like a guy who’s sort of cool, but who keeps trying to convince everyone he’s SUPER-cool, hoping we won’t see him sweat as he manically, misguidedly imitates the genuinely cool people he knows.

Dreamworks has tried to blend the edginess of its “Shrek” films with the innocence of Pixar, and both sides lose. The pop-cultural satire is fairly toothless — do we really need more Mafia parodies at this point? And does De Niro do anything BUT Mafia parodies anymore? — and the “sweet” moments ring false and feel obligatory. There are laughs, yes, but nothing so witty you’ll remember it later, and nothing so touching you’ll get a lump in your throat. This one’s going belly-up, chum.

C+ (1 hr., 30 min.; PG, mild stuff.)