Oscars 2005
Something Fishy
Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures
Emru Townsend · February 20, 2005 | I will confess outright that I have not seen Shark Tale. But then, I didn't need to. And really, that's the problem.

I made the decision not to see the movie when I saw the trailer for it in the theatre. It wasn't a hard choice to make, as it felt more like a checklist than a trailer. It had the high concept hook (see, it's just like an American city—but it's underwater, with fish!), a recognizable storyline or two (a fast talker gets caught in the web of his own deceit, an outsider is at odds with his conformist environment), a recognizable but not too recent pop tune ("Car Wash"), an in-joke or two (a Jaws poster, a puffer fish voiced by Martin Scorsese that has his distinctive eyebrows), a dance number, a gag that reminds us we're with dealing with fish here (the hammerhead can't see what's between his eyes—laff riot!), prominent celebrity voices, and a star-studded soundtrack (the exact word in the trailer was "superstars").

The only thing missing was a trace of originality.

This, I fear, is the downside to living in a largely postmodern pop-culture landscape, where references and in-jokes have created a humour subgenre all their own. It's also part of the reason sequels and remakes have become so commonplace; the mere act of reference to an earlier work has become a validation for the new work.

The trend is noticeable in movies, TV, and music, but my suspicion is that animation is the earliest and most consistent instigator. The earliest Warner Bros. animated shorts produced by Harman and Ising in the 1930s specifically featured music to which Warner owned the rights, in effect inserting a pop-culture reference into each short. When Carl Stalling came along later in the decade, his arrangements constantly referenced recognizable tunes—but by then the images were in on the act as well. One-off shorts like Have You Got Any Castles and the later, more manic Book Revue also riffed on books and celebrities in a veritable orgy of pop-culture trivia. In these cases, it wasn't that there were references within the story; the references were the story.

Shark Tale
DreamWorks SKG, 2004
Directed by Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson and Rob Letterman
90 minutes

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While most cartoons never went as far as those, a connection of sorts was still established. For instance, the Warner cartoons kept using parodies and caricatures throughout most of their run. And every moment Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were onscreen, their dynamic and characterizations referenced Jackie Gleason and Art Carney's Honeymooners characters.

The tipping point was somewhere in the early 1990s. There was The Simpsons, which by its fourth season was loaded with film and TV homages as well as celebrity guest stars not only playing themselves, but playing up their public or fictional personas. (Who can forget Barry White's mellifluous tones charming all the snakes in Springfield, or Leonard Nimoy beaming out of a scene?) There was Animaniacs, in which three minutes couldn't go by without a reference to some bit of pop-culture minutia. And there was The Lion King, where Jeremy Irons, playing Scar, delivered a line ("You have no idea.") that he had delivered as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune. This in itself isn't remarkable, except that Disney's Lion King press kit specifically mentioned the homage, calling attention to their own po-mo cleverness.

That last example is the most significant, because it illustrates the root of our current problem: too much self-awareness. By the time The Lion King rolled around, more people were starting to notice that cartoons weren't just the province of six-year-olds. And thanks to increased scrutiny of Looney Tunes and Tex Avery's MGM shorts (which was in turn due to the Cartoon Network, laserdisc releases, Bugs Bunny's fiftieth birthday, and the increased recognition of Chuck Jones), what the cartoon cognoscenti already knew—that Golden Age cartoons weren't made for kids—was becoming more common knowledge. But the lessons learned were applied only superficially, and what we got, in some cases, was a giant step backward. Like the early Warner shorts, the references themselves started to become the raison-d'Ítre of the cartoons. And that leads directly to productions like Shark Tale.

At some point, all this cleverness is going to get tiresome. I sincerely hope that before we reach that moment, someone remembers that the cartoons that really become timeless classics—the ones people remember for the rest of their lives—are the ones with interesting stories featuring distinctive characters.
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