In the opening moments of Shrek 2, a little mermaid is hurled into the ocean and jumped upon by sharks, offering both a scurrilous dig at the revered Dis-ney back catalogue and a shameless plug for the forthcoming animated aquatic feature from DreamWorks. Yet as the highly touted Shark Tale finally washes up in local cinemas, one is reminded that pride traditionally comes before a fall - or a flop. For despite being advertised with a razor-toothed trailer designed to trawl in viewers of all ages (and, incidentally, plundering every good joke in the film), Shark Tale surfaces as less of a spicy snapper than a damp squib. Among its greatest critics will surely be the young viewers whom the makers seem to have overlooked in their eagerness to provide knowing nudge-wink gags for the mums and dads. The result is a "family movie" that has none of the universal appeal of either Toy Story or Shrek and their respective sequels, and which will leave at least half the audience desperate to get home to the more reliable entertainment of their Monsters, Inc and Finding Nemo videos.
For the record, the watery plot of Shark Tale concerns a chance encounter between a nondescript fish (voiced by Will Smith) and a vegetarian predator who is the black sheep of a family of loan sharks. Cue loads of smart-arsed Goodfellas-style exchanges ("What?" "What 'what'?" "What 'what what'?", and so on) between "voice artistes" Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. While this may amuse those grown-ups who are not utterly depressed by hearing their heroes debase themselves, it will presumably utterly baffle anyone born after 1990. Certainly at the kid-packed screening I attended, the three- to five-year-olds soon lost patience with the lack of on-screen action and took to asking their parents loudly if it was nearly over. It's all very well making sly asides about a range of movies from Car Wash to Jerry Maguire, but if the kids aren't kept entranced by an enchanting fable narrative, an exciting chase sequence or a string of burp and fart jokes, their accompanying adults will be too distracted to appreciate the "grown-up" giggles. In the end, Shark Tale leaves everyone feeling frustratingly unfed - an extraordinary achievement for a film that gorges itself on state-of-the-art graphic animation and devours a glamorous roll-call of bankable stars including Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Renee Zellweger. Toothless, pointless stuff.
If Shark Tale had been made in Korea rather than Hollywood, it's a safe bet that its fishy fiends would have met rather more revoltingly sticky ends. The British censors have recently been struggling to reconcile the strict rules of the Cinematograph Act of 1937 (which forbids the exhibition of movies exploiting cruelty to animals) and the "different attitudes" towards our fellow creatures prevalent in certain Asian territories. Last month brought the release of Ki-duk Kim's The Isle, which the censors cut for including scenes of a bird being drowned, a dog being beaten and a live fish being filleted before being dropped - still flapping - back into the water. Now from South Korea comes Chan-wook Park's Oldboy, the controversial highlights of which include a man eating a live octopus whose tentacles wrap around his face even as he chows down. Inconsistently, the censors have passed Oldboy uncut, although I suspect their decision was influenced by a reticence to slice up a film that has been internationally hailed as a work of art, and which recently won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.
Mondo cruelty aside, Oldboy does possess a madly mesmeric appeal, thanks in large part to the ragged charms of leading man Min-sik Choi, who previously shone in the rambunctious Chihwaseon (Drunk on Women and Poetry). Blessed with baggy, shell-shocked, hung-over eyes that appear to have looked too long into the abyss, he excels as Dae-su Oh, the victim of a Kafka-esque 15-year imprisonment from which he escapes (or is released) into a vengeful world of uncertain reality. Theatrical Greek tragedy, modern screen violence and wince-inducing mistreatment of teeth and tongues ensue, as our Nietzschean anti-hero confronts the monstrous truth ("revenge has become a part of me") about his own foul nature.
Shot in uncanny dreamy hues, and accompanied by an incongruously stately score tinged with the colours of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Oldboy is a weird-ly haunting piece whose cracked satirical smile bespeaks genuine dementia. Along with Joon-ho Bong's Memories of Murder and Ji-woon Kim's A Tale of Two Sisters, it reconfirms South Korea as the new home of adventurously unpredictable extreme cinema - a territory blessed with enough dramatic talent to have no need to stoop to acts of unsimulated animal sadism.