Something’s swishy about ‘Shark Tale’
Ed Vitagliano
Ed Vitagliano
AFA Journal news editor

November-December 2004 – It is an axiom for many parents that, when it comes to teaching kids what they need to know, “It’s never too young to start.”

What happens when Hollywood applies the same axiom to teaching young people – even children – to accept homosexuality?

That appears to be the case in the DreamWorks animated film Shark Tale, released in theaters in October. While it won’t take in the money of last year’s Disney/Pixar hit Finding Nemo, the DreamWorks story of life under the sea netted almost $119 million in its first 17 days in theaters.

Shark Tale centers on the busy cosmopolitan life of an ocean reef, which resembles, in the words of The Oregonian’s Shawn Levy, “Times Square at rush hour.” The focus of Shark Tale is primarily on Oscar, a fish who has big dreams of one day striking it rich and living on the top of the reef with the upwardly mobile undersea class.

The reef, however, is frequently terrorized by an organized crime syndicate made up of sharks. The mob is run Mafioso style by a great white shark named Don Lino and his two sons, Frankie and Lenny.

It is when Shark Tale turns its attention to Lenny that it veers toward an undercurrent of approval for homosexuality. While it is difficult to prove intent when a film does not explicitly make a character “gay,” the story and dialogue demonstrate an implicit approval of homosexuality.

The movie is, as Peter Debruge of Premiere magazine said in a review, “a weak allegory about a macho dad learning to accept his gay son.”

A son who’s ‘different’
In developing this allegory, Shark Tale uses all of the familiar Hollywood plot devices, beginning with the son who is “different,” and who fails to measure up to the cultural standards of manhood.

Lenny’s mannerisms and voice tend toward the effeminate, notes a review by Scott Tobias in The Onion A.V. Club, but that’s not the worst of it. For in sharkdom, masculinity is measured by one’s proficiency as a meat-eater.

Lenny, however, just doesn’t seem to get it. At a public restaurant with his two boys, Lino tells Lenny: “I don’t know how else to say this to you, Lenny. You see something, you kill it. You eat it. Period. … That’s what sharks do. That’s a fine tradition. What’s the matter with you?”

A shark who isn’t a killer is not “normal,”  and this deficiency in his son is starting to embarrass Lino. “I’m hearing things,” he tells Lenny. “You gotta understand, when you look weak it makes me look weak.”

The real problem, of course, is that Lenny isn’t a meat-eater. In fact, he’s a closet vegetarian, and Lenny understands just how unnatural that is for sharks. He’s ashamed, and that guilt deepens when he later overhears his father complain, “What’s wrong with that kid? Why’s he gotta be so different?”

As movie reviewer Dustin Putman notes, Lenny is “a shark afraid to ‘come out’ as a vegetarian to his mob boss father,” and this plot device is “slyly standing in for the experiences many go through in coming to terms with their sexual orientation.”

The pressure of his father’s disapproval is too much for Lenny, and he runs away. Oscar, who should be his natural prey, becomes his friend.

However, that friendship allows Lenny to open up, and he finally confesses to Oscar that he’s “different.” He admits: “I’m a vegetarian. … You’re the first fish I ever told. I’m so tired of keeping it all a secret. And my dad – he’ll never accept me for who I am! What’s wrong with me?”

A ‘cross-dressing’ shark?
But Lenny is more than just a vegetarian. He turns out to enjoy dressing as a dolphin, an obvious allusion to cross-dressing, as noted in a review of Shark Tale by Ed Park in The Village Voice.

“Lenny flees his old life by disguising himself as a dolphin and indulging his happy side,” Levy says, calling it “a barely hidden subtext here about letting your closeted inner self emerge ….”

When Lino finally sees Lenny dressed as a dolphin, he explodes angrily: “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea how this looks?” Lino blames Oscar, saying, “[Y]ou turned Lenny into a dolphin!” 

Nevertheless, this is an animated film intended for children, so Shark Tale has to have a happy ending. This is provided via Oscar, who manages to get father and son together for a face-to-face reconciliation. 

“What is your problem?” Oscar demands of Lino. “So your son likes kelp. So his best friend’s a fish. So he likes to dress like a dolphin. So what? Everybody loves him, just the way he is. Why can’t you?”

Lino’s heart softens, and he tells Lenny, “I love you son, no matter what you eat or how you dress.”

Of course, when it comes to kids, this is tricky stuff. The film does not come right out and say that we should all accept homosexuality. And, naturally, children should be taught to be accepting of others.

But as Plugged In’s Steven Isaac notes, “Had this movie been released 20 years ago, nobody would have been calling attention to this subject.” Two decades ago, accepting differences meant accepting a person who might have a different skin color, or be from a different ethnic background.

Such differences are immutable characteristics, however, and not sexual choices. In this respect, Shark Tale comes far too close to taking a bite out of traditional moral and spiritual beliefs.

And that’s probably swimming a bit too close to shore for many parents.  undefined