''Let me explain it for the readers, because I'm pretty smart,'' says ''School of Rock'''s Jack Black. ''Not only does ''Shark Tale'' mean 'shark story,' it also means, like, the back end of a shark. Like 'shark tail.' See?'' Gotcha. Actually, once upon a time, this computer-created cartoon confection -- the latest from ''Shrek'' distributor DreamWorks, and the first produced by the studio's Southern California animation unit -- went by the more menacing moniker ''Sharkslayer.'' But during ''Shark Tale'''s three-year development swim, the film evolved, thanks in large part to the comic casting of Smith and Black. The ''I, Robot'' action hero plays Oscar, a little fish whose big mouth gets him in trouble with mobbed-up great whites, led by Don Lino (De Niro, naturally). Oscar finds a buddy in Don Lino's son, Lenny (Black), who not only has no appetite for ''the life''...but he's also a vegetarian. ''In the beginning,'' says producer Bill Damaschke, ''we set out to make a movie a little more noir, perhaps a little darker than where we've landed.''
Indeed, stuffed to the gills with jokey Mafia movie references, ''Shark Tale'' sports less naturalistic 3-D animation than, oh, say, ''Finding Nemo''(from DreamWorks archenemies Disney and Pixar). While both films were produced concurrently, Damaschke says, ''The only thing they have in common is that they both take place underwater.''
''Shark Tale'' is ''very contemporary. Our reef is a fantasy underwater version of New York or Chicago. If you've seen our character design, our actors have crept very purposely into their alter egos.'' Case in point: Scorsese's Sykes, a blowhard puffer fish. ''I'm not really acting. It's me. The fish even has big eyebrows!'' says the director, who improvised many of his scenes with longtime collaborator De Niro.
Black, meanwhile, praises the production for plying him with shrimp scampi burritos and rotisserie chicken during his nine vocal sessions (''I can't bring the rocket sauce without some fuel'') and says fans should expect some Tenacious D-lish riffs. ''There are some straight-up Jack Blackisms. I'll let you figure out which ones.'' WHAT’S AT STAKE For DreamWorks Animation, which has just filed to go public, a chance to reel in investor confidence. (Oct. 1)
Shall We Dance?
Last time EW spoke to Peter Chelsom (''Serendipity''), the director was looking forward to a long vacation in Tuscany after the August premiere of his new movie, a remake of the 1996 graceful Japanese dance number. But then Miramax cut in and reshuffled the release schedule, tossing the director's travel plans out the window (''And I really don't want to be reminded of them right now,'' he sighs). The party line is that Miramax moved the movie to take better advantage of the holiday awards season. But tongues wag on that the $50 million movie, in which J. Lo plays a ballroom dance teacher and Gere her willing pupil, is simply a wet noodle. ''I swear to you, to-tally the opposite is true,'' says Chelsom. ''I've got the test scores right in front of me! It plays through the roof!'' The lousy word on the street depresses the director, but hey, things could be worse. ''All we hope is that Jennifer doesn't get divorced before Oct. 15.'' WHAT’S AT STAKE After a year of bad press and tabloid fatigue, J. Lo's derriere is on the line. (Oct. 15)