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Far Better Than Expected
on August 13, 2012
A very good argument could be made that of all the genres of computer generated feature film, none are as popular as the underwater/ talking fish angle. Sure you've heard of Finding Nemo and maybe Shark Tale but what about Dolphin the Story of a Dreamer, Legend of the Sea, Sea Level, A Turtle Tale: Sammy's Adventure or this, The Reef? I can't say I've made it through all of the "Grade B" underwater titles mentioned above, I can safely state that The Reef may be the strongest of the lot and contrary to common belief, not just because the others are so bad.
For starters The Reef isn't your average second-rate CG feature right from the get-go just in the fact that it is an original American film (co-produced by South Korean animators) rather than the much more common (and annoying) trend of importing a foreign CG film and slapping a hackneyed English script atop the mismatched mouth flaps.
Additionally, The Reef is unique in that though it was designed right from the get-go for an American release, it never made the big-screen rounds; instead arriving as a direct-to-dvd piece back in 2007. Obviously this tells us not to expect inflated budget Pixar magic right out of the gate, but even with a modest bankroll and limited distribution, The Reef manages to succeed on many levels.
The story certainly won't dazzle in terms of originality, but it's decent enough to carry the film: Pi (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), lives happily with his parents in the heavily polluted waters of Boston Harbor, until a boat harvests many of the area fish in a net. Pi's parents manage to help him escape the net, but cannot themselves get free. Orphaned, Pi is then taken in by some kindhearted porpoises and escorted to the distant reef where he is to stay with his aunt Pearl (Fran Drescher) and cousin Dylan (Andy Dick).
With a much richer color pallet and rapid decrease in pollution, Pi's new home looks like the type of place for a fish to kick back until Cordelia (Evan Rachel Wood) comes into the picture. A model with her eye on the Pi, things could be reef-tastic for these two fishies if not for Troy (Donal Logue), a slightly unstable tiger shark who not only gets his kicks tormenting everyone on the reef, but is also scheming on Cordelia himself.
Fortunately Pi learns about Nerissa (Rob Schneider), a reclusive wise old turtle who dwells in the wreck of an old pirate ship. Under Nerissa's tutelage, Pi hopes to win over Cordelia without becoming shark bait in the process.
So while this certainly feels like "been there, done that" territory, The Reef is surprisingly solid thanks to a script laced with humor and just enough cleverness to appeal to the adults while the little-ones clamor to the bright colors and crisp visuals. The cast, which on paper looks like a virtual train wreck (I mean Andy Dick and Fran Drescher in the same film... with Freddie Prinze Jr in the lead? Eeks!), manages to bring a surprisingly enjoyable flavor to the formula. Prinze delivers his least monotone repertoire to date and Donal Logue brings a wonderful bully to the character of Troy with hints of early Travolta thrown in for good measure. A perfectly cast John Rhys-Davies handles both narration duty as well as brings his A-game to the role of the tale-telling walrus Thorton and the character's name eludes me now but the simple-minded eel lackey of Troy's who comes off as a subdued Christopher Walken is especially memorable.
I have noticed many critics slam The Reef for its lack of originality and there is some validity to such concerns but to my way of thinking, treading proven ground is far more forgivable than creating an original film that stinks of its own volition (watch Dolphin the Story of a Dreamer for more on this phenomenon).
In closing my research for this review has revealed Weinstein Company's plans of releasing a sequel to this film for 2012 (The Reef 2: High Tide)- proof that occasionally films with more heart than budget get recognized for what they are.