Time Out New York
March 25- April 1, 2004
by Howard Halle

If The Passion of the Christ has taught us anything, it's that a film doesn't have to open to piss people off. Case in point: Shark Tale, a computer animated feature from SKG DreamWorks.

The movie, which has an all-star cast, including Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese - could be described as Finding Nemo meets GoodFellas. It hits theaters this fall, but already, the Italic Institute of America is attacking the movie, not just for perpetuating Italians -as-mobsters stereotypes, but for peddling them to kids. "It's bringing the whole Godfather theme to children's movies," says the Italic Institute's John Mancini. "They've got sharks with Italian names - Don Lino, Luca. It's underwater Mafia, basically. They thought it was a big yuk to bring this Sopranos stuff over to kids." Mancini, obviously, isn't amused.

Mancini's preemptive strike recalls Abe Foxman's in the months before The Passion's release; neither, in fact, had seen the object of his ire. Still, one major difference exists: Mel Gibson himself had first warned that the film would offend "certain people." Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg have yet to adopt this strategy, but even if they did, they'd have more than just Italian-Americans to deal with: Shark Tale appears to be a veritable cavalcade of stereotypes, parading not only wise guys, but black street characters, like two Rastafarian jellyfish named Ernie and Bernie, voiced by Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley. (Their tentacles are dreadlocks. Get it?) There's even a Jew: a sand shark named Don Feinberg.

One person's stereotyping is another person's diversity, however. According to Andy Spahn, head of corporate affairs for DreamWorks, "Shark Tale is a family appropriate film featuring a wide range of cultural backgrounds." To Mancini, it's an odious opportunity for marketing to minors. He mentions how DreamWorks has already teamed with Hasbro and Activision to produce the inevitable action figures and games. "I presume they'll try to work some deals with McDonald's," he sniffs. (Spahn will say only that DreamWorks is entering into the "usual" sorts of partnerships for a film like Shark Tale.)

As a parent, I'm a tiny bit squeamish about criminality serving as the basis for children's fare. You have to wonder what Spielberg was thinking. He's dedicating a significant portion of his life to fighting anti-Semitism through his Shoah Foundation, yet he's trafficking in ethnic caricatures.

Even so, Mancini has no desire to stop DreamWorks from releasing Shark Tale. "We told them, ŒFine, make your movie, but de-Italianize it.'" In fact, he says, "Don Feinberg" resulted from his appeal to actor Peter Falk, who voices the part. "We didn't ask him to turn his character Jewish, even though he's Jewish," Mancini says. "We just said, de-Italianize."

Has Mancini contacted any Italian-American cast members? Sopranos stars Vincent Pastore and Michael Imperioli, for example? "Those are lost souls. They wouldn't have a life without the Mafia." What about Scorsese or De Niro? "Even though they were honored recently by the National Italian American Foundation," Mancini says, "they don't care; they're in it for the money."

Mancini concedes that he faces an uphill battle, due in no small measure to the power of Italian-American images in popular culture. "Italians are very interesting to people," he says. "The concept of family, and the characters they imbue it with. Criminals come in all ethnic groups, but the Italians have more romance - more panache - than, say, Chinese criminals." To Spahn, the issue is simpler: "Look, these are fish. I really don't know what his problem is."

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