Animation releases always seem to come in pairs, with Pixar and Dreamworks locked in an endless battle for supremacy, often working similar plots to radically different ends. In 2006, the world had just about enough fish tales to last a lifetime, with "Finding Nemo" and "Shark Tale" covering all there was to know about colorful, sassy animated fish and their foibles. But that didn't stop South Korea, who teamed up with a fringe American animation studio to create "The Reef," yet another story of underwater adventure, only this time with Freddie Prinze, Jr. in the lead role, with a budget roughly the size of a catered lunch at Pixar.
Separated from his parents when they're caught by a net in polluted Boston waters, young Pi (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) is instructed to head to the rich waters of The Reef to seek guidance from his aunt Pearl (Fran Drescher). After settling in and meeting the locals (including Andy Dick), Pi discovers soul mate Cordelia (Evan Rachel Wood), who's promptly stolen by shark bully Troy (Donal Logue). Seeking a Reef survival education from the wise turtle Nerissa (Rob Schneider), Pi is schooled in all manner of water manipulation and self-preservation, soon returning to tyrant Troy to reclaim Cordelia and protect The Reef from further shark disruptions.
"The Reef" is pretty shameless when it comes to stealing chunks of "Finding Nemo" to create a light adventure for extremely young audiences. Anyone over toddler status is going to recognize the plagiarism right away. Originality is not served up here, leaving the filmmakers with one option left to truly impress: resplendent execution. Trouble is, that's not here either, with "The Reef" resembling a glorified screensaver, boasting animation that's smooth rather than textured, and a few scenes appear downright unfinished. It's a shoddy-looking picture with little in the way of a budget to construct a highly expressive deep blue sea excursion. Instead, it's loudly colored and stiffly rendered.
The voice cast also lacks direct star power, with the talent assembled doing their damndest to sound excited about this tedious film. With a script primarily interested in wordplay and bathroom humor (the fart and pee jokes fly fast here), the cast has to juggle lame lines and anemic confrontations, with Rob Schneider assuming most of the heavy lifting here, contributing Christopher Walken and James Cagney impressions to help illuminate his ubiquitous presence in the picture, taking on several roles of diverse personality. Hey, at least Schneider is trying to spice up this bland brew, which is more than I can say for everyone else.
The AVC encoded image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) is a troubling viewing experience. Though the animation provides an interesting palette of bold cartoon colors (pinks and greens) to encourage the lighthearted animated mood, the image is riddled with jagged edged and ringing issues, with the film's general appearance not born for an HD source, resembling an upconverted DVD image. The film's unfinished look stands out on the BD, with a few moments of simplistic design success dampened by a hasty transfer effort.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix does its job getting listeners into the underwater mood, with a satisfying push of pressure and movement to bring the sea kingdom to life. Dialogue is crisply arranged, with clearly defined voicework taking top priority, sticking out from the scoring cues with occasional severity. Atmospherics are satisfying, exploring the supporting characters and the setting, but there's little depth here to bring a cinematic thrust. Even chase sequences lack sonic vigor. For a low-budget family film, the mix achieves what it sets out to do, it merely lacks ambition.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
Again, "The Reef" is strictly for young audiences, who might feel a twinge of excitement when Pi receives the Miyagi treatment from Nerissa, or when our hero fish confronts Troy in the grand finale. Anyone else in the room when this film begins is on their own. Don't say I didn't try to warn you.