Group accuses ''Shark Tale'' of stereotyping. DreamWorks insists that the animated Mob spoof's undersea gangster characters aren't ethnic slurs

By Gary Susman
September 15, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Some Italian-Americans probably would like to see Shark Tale, DreamWorks’ animated underwater gangster spoof, sleep with the fishes. Since the cartoon was still in script stage, activists have been complaining that the film trots out negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans as Mobsters. (Even though the Mob characters are sharks, many have recognizably Italian names, use Italian-American words, and are voiced by Italian-American actors best known for their gangster roles.) Now, one activist says he’s seen a preview of the film, which opens Oct. 1, and it confirmed his opinion that the movie traffics in ethnic slurs. ”The movie introduces young minds to the idea that people with Italian names — like millions of Americans across the country — are gangsters,” said Laurence Auriana, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation (which produces New York’s Columbus Day Parade), in a statement.

Arguing that the undersea villains were unmistakably Italian-American, Auriana pointed to the casting of such well-known Mobster portrayers as Robert De Niro and Sopranos stars Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore, to the use of words like ”capeesh” and ”consigliere” in the dialogue, and to such character names as Don Lino, Luca, Giuseppe, and Gino. During the film’s development, DreamWorks responded to similar criticism by changing one character’s name from Brizzi to Feinberg. That’s not enough for Auriana, who’d like to see the studio drop all the Italian names and speech from Shark Tale before it opens in two weeks.

DreamWorks spokesman Andy Spahn told Reuters that the complaints about the movie are unfair. ”It doesn’t demean anyone, there are no negative stereotypes. There is nothing mean-spirited in the film,” he said. He also noted that the sharks aren’t necessarily evil characters. ”Villains become heroes over the course of this film,” he said.

De Niro has had similar fish to fry in recent weeks. When he went to the Venice Film Festival last week, to promote Shark Tale and to be named an honorary Italian citizen, a group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America complained to both DreamWorks and to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, arguing that it was wrong for Italy to honor an actor who had ”made a career of playing gangsters of Italian descent.” De Niro defended himself to reporters in Venice, saying, ”The characters I played are real. They have as much right to be portrayed as others.” Besides, he’s done a lot more in his career than just play Italian gangsters. He’s also played Irish and Jewish gangsters.