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Fish Tales

Universal // PG // August 26, 2008
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted September 4, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Oh, how I so dearly wanted to love "Fishtales." As a romantic comic fantasy, it comes so close to the edge of charm and sweetness and whimsical, frothy fun, only to repeatedly pull back, stymied by clumsy pacing and bad jokes.

The film stars Billy Zane - by now an expert in supplying sly charisma to films that do not deserve them - as Thomas Bradley, an bumbling American professor teaching at Oxford. Oblivious to the passes made at him by the female student body, he buries himself in his research, something about ancient love spells and dead languages. A fellow prof gives him the keys to his lush villa on the Greek isle of Spetses; perhaps the local flavor will inspire the summertime studies.

Thomas brings along his tweener daughter Serena (Amber Savva), who explores the island while dad toils away with his dusty books and mysterious ancient scripts. That's when she stumbles upon Neried (Kelly Brook), a full-on, all-out mermaid. Naturally, the girl's first instinct is to introduce Neried to her father and hope for a love connection.

As a story, "Fishtales" is too jumbled and spastic, comprised of random ideas and half-formed plot threads that are pasted together haphazardly, the hope being that the fanciful tone of the piece will carry us through. Screenwriters Alki David (who also directs and co-stars) and Melissa Painter never bother with a consistent tone - pleasantly calm character moments are interrupted by obnoxious punchlines; over-the-top comedy is placed side-by-side with tender drama.

The main offender is David himself, who plays a lecherous, crass Greek fisherman who shouts and ogles and makes with the funny faces. Rarely has a character ever been so far out of place in a film as this one, with David hamming it up at full volume as if attempting a broad parody of the "wacky foreigner" comic relief type. He's included as the main villain, a sort of Don Knotts-esque bungler out to kill Nereid and steal her tail; sadly, this requires him to have ample screen time, none of it welcome.

There are also fart jokes and cheap slapstick and a scene where a wedding party ends with a woman on fire diving into the sea, and we wonder: who thought the best thing for this love story would be to include cartoony gags? And who thought a movie aimed at a younger audience (which this ultimately is) would benefit from a few arbitrary cheap sex jokes?

Without these bits, "Fishtales" has a certain sweetness to it that's genuinely inviting, despite the low budget limitations and the over-simplicity of the plot. The underrated Zane is a natural at handling such breezy material, his magnetism not yet diluted by age or horrible toupee. He and Brook share a nice chemistry, which is no surprise, considering the two were briefly engaged during filming. And Savva brings her own screen presence, a plucky youthful energy reminiscent of the Christina Ricci/Gabby Hoffman school of young starlets from the early 1990s.

When the film focuses on these stars (and not the clunky jokes), the tone mellows into something agreeable, as soft and warm as the Greek sunsets on display. For all his fumbling with the comic relief, David manages to find the film's heart in the scenes featuring the three main characters, all of whom discover friendship and love and family. The interplay between father and daughter (most memorably in one gentle scene where Thomas reveals he never truly loved anyone, not even Serena's mom) carry a tenderness that's both welcome and honest.

But while these scenes click, the screenplay can never find a way to fit all the pieces together, especially not with the lame humor constantly getting in the way. There's a lovely little film buried deep within "Fishtales" (like a mermaid's treasure, perhaps?), but David and Painter show no effort in finding it.

The DVD

"Fishtales" spent more time struggling through the tabloids than it did playing on theater screens; much was made in the UK press about an on-set accident in which Brook hit her head on a rock and almost drowned. The film wound up being a brutal flop both at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival (with reports of walk-outs en masse) and in Great Britain (where it tanked in its limited theatrical run), and now arrives in the States as a direct-to-video release from Screen Media, which essentially guarantees a whole new nation of people not seeing this movie.

Amusingly, Screen Media's DVD cover (which respells the title as "Fish Tales," yet retains the original spelling for the fine print) features a tagline that references "The Little Mermaid" and several clownfish that perhaps evoke "Finding Nemo." The image of Zane in a rowboat, meanwhile, reminds us of "Titanic," and the jokes about video store customers getting a sinking feeling pretty much write themselves.

Video & Audio

Screen Media has provided DVD Talk with a watermarked screener copy of "Fishtales." As with other Screen Media screeners, however, it appears that, despite the infrequent watermark, our check disc is close to the final retail version. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer here makes good use of both the lush underwater photography and the rich colors of the Greek landscape, yet suffers from a heavy amount of softness and an occasional muting of the very colors the movie wants to showcase. Also problematic: several scenes come across a hair too dark for their own good.

The Dolby stereo soundtrack is serviceable, coming through quite nicely during the film's many pop music interludes. Dialogue sounds cheaply recorded in some scenes, although this seems to be a fault of the source material; for the most part, it's clean and clear. The package lists the inclusion of optional Spanish subtitles, although none were included on this review copy.

Extras

The film's trailer (presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) is the only extra provided. On this check disc, the trailer is only accessible when "play movie" is selected (it plays before the film); there's no telling if this will be the case on the retail version.

Final Thoughts

"Fishtales" could have been a delightful indie project, but the filmmakers keep sabotaging the good parts by insisting on unwanted comedy. It's not nearly as bad as its flop status might suggest, but it's not good enough to actually defend. Young girls who've grown tired of rewatching "Aquamarine" should simply Rent It.
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