Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: thirteen years later, Finding Nemo finally gets a sequel in Finding Dory. In contrast, it took less than sixteen months for it to get its most famous knock-off, and if I don't review it now, I can't imagine when else I ever will.

Shark Tale is diabolically bad. There's no lesser way to put it. It's far and away the worst film made by DreamWorks Animation, a studio with enough low points that there ought to be at least some competition for that title. It puts in a strong bid for being the worst animated feature of the 2000s; and if there's a worse film to have ever been nominated for a competitive Oscar, I haven't seen it. It has the benefit, at least of making everything else in the world look better: no matter how awful and pandering an animated comedy might get, at the very least you can almost always comfort yourself with the mantra "but hey, it wasn't motherfucking Shark Tale".

The film typifies and exaggerates all the things that are absolutely worst in DreamWorks' heady post-Shrek decade, when a sizable percentage of all of its output consisted of dreary attempts to copy as much of that film's formula as possible. It features a roster of celebrities cast for marquee value rather than their skills as voice actors: Will Smith leads a line-up including Jack Black, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, and, for reasons that I hope and pray involved blackmail or possibly an ancient cursed amulet controlling his actions, Martin "I am one of America's pre-eminent film directors" Scorsese. And a special shout-out to Reneรฉ Zellweger, fulfilling the mandatory role as the castmember who doesn't even have a meaningfully recognizable voice (which didn't keep DreamWorks from hiring her two more times in the future). There's also that characteristic comedy style basexd more on stuffing as many references to contemporary culture as can be incongruously and thus "humorously" placed into a novel setting. Whole scenes exist for no reason other than to parody movies that the ostensible target audience probably hasn't heard of and surely hasn't seen. And do you suppose that it ends with all of the characters getting together for a dance party? Hell yeah it does! Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilera play fish versions of themselves!

(In fairness, the dance party finale works here better than it usually does: it's honest to the characters as we've gotten to know them, and there's relatively decent narrative justification for it. Still, to hell with this movie).

So anyway, here's what happens: somewhere in the ocean, there is a fish city in a coral reef. And by "fish city", I mean "Manhattan with fish puns everywhere". They are terrible puns and I will not relive any of them for you, but I have to point out that they're maybe at their most delightfully soulless when they are also product placement, like the big neon billboard for Coral-Cola, or Fish King, a fast-food restaurant where citizens apparently cannibalise their fellows. Also, there is a florist called "Martha Sturgeon's", which barely even makes sense - "Sturgeon" barely even resembles "Stewart" visibly.

But I was talking about the plot, or whatever. The reef is in mortal terror of the great white shark mafia, led by Don Lino (De Niro), and his two sons Frankie (Michael Imperioli) and Lenny (Black). Frankie is a tough guy, and Lenny is, well, gay. I don't know if that was the filmmaker's decision, or Black's, but that's exactly how he's playing the role, in a really unpleasant, stereotypical way. The script only goes so far as to call him vegetarian, but the point is, his dad is depressed by him and angry that he's raced such a prissy la-di-da fancyboy as a son, and keeps trying to bully him into being a better shark. Did I mention that Black also speaks with an affected Bronx accented? Well he does. It's tin-eared and flat-footed and totally devoid of the enthusiasm he'd bring to the table four years later when he returned to the DreamWorks fold with Kung Fu Panda. In a film with nary a single enjoyable vocal performance, I think Black's might be the one I hate the most; though I don't know, De Niro sounds pretty damn well comatose.

Elsewhere in the reef, we find Oscar (Smith), a fresh-mouthed sassy streetwise fish with dreams of making it big and having a tricked-out crib where he can invite his buddies and fine lady fish and wear gold chains and sideways baseball caps and all. Oscar is what happens when a film executive watches some of those old '30s cartoons that present shiftless African-Americans as minstrel show caricatures, and muses, "why don't we do that anymore?" He's also not the most racist caricature in a film that also finds room for a pair of Rastafarian jellyfish, voiced by Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley. Anyway, Oscar works as the tongue-scrubber at a whale wash owned by the petty, paranoid blowfish Sykes (Scorsese) - Oscar is in to Sykes for money, and Sykes is under the thumb of Lino's shark mob, and this ends up with Oscar chained to an anchor where Frankie and Lenny will come along to eat him. Except, of course, Lenny can't bring himself to do it, and in the ensuing scuffle, Frankie ends up with his skull caved in by an anchor, with Oscar unfairly getting the credit. This turns the little fish into the city's newest celebrity, the "shark slayer", which means he gets to live his dream - but his dream is a lie. Also, it puts him into a supremely distasteful romantic triangle between the whale wash's sweetly innocent receptionist, Angie (Zellweger), and the smoldering gold digger Lola (Jolie), who to make sure we get the point is introduced while the song "Gold Digger" by Ludacris is playing. Meanwhile, Lenny and Oscar become friends and co-conspirators, while the rest of the sharks plot their revenge.

Anyway, let's go back to Lola. Here's something interesting and totally horrible about Shark Tale: many of the characters are caricatures of their voice actors. This is grossly unpleasant - seeing Will Smith's face represented as a little yellow fish face is off-putting enough, and that's without factoring in how not-great DreamWorks' technology was by 2004: they still didn't have the hang of texturing character surfaces, so not only does the fish have Smith's face, it covers his face in what appears to be yellow leather, but the leather is made out of plastic (also, given Smith's own expressions, it gives Oscar the worst case of DreamWorks Eyebrow that DreamWorks ever released) All the characters have the same slightly brittle quality, their flesh not really flexible - the blowfish with Scorsese's eyebrows is maybe the most noticeable and the most upsetting in this regard. But we were talking about Lola, who does indeed look like a fish version of Angelina Jolie, which in practice, in 2004, means that Lola has been drawn as a fish who is meant to be sexually attractive. There is not much in the world of animation that is more deeply repulsive than a fish fuck-doll with Angelina Jolie's facial features, and everything that I can think of that tops it was supposed to be that repulsive. Lola is the embodiment of everything worst about DreamWorks turned up to 11: the shameless use of celebrities, the smuttiness that feels out of place in a kids' movie, the inability to actually animate characters in a way that gives them mass and presence and personality - the things that, ostensibly, character animation was designed to do in the first place.

Shark Tale looks hella bad. It's brightly colored, but that's entirely as far as it goes. There is nothing appealing about how its characters move (except for one brief shot when Don Lino, preparing to attack, moves from the lumpy humanoid form he adopts for most of the movie into the dagger-like shape of an actual shark), not even any particular imagination in how the underwater space is used. 15 years after The Little Mermaid, it's incredible and frankly depressing that a big-budget animated film would put so little effort into exploiting the three-dimensional possibilities of underwater movement, but everything is clamped to the ground - furniture, buildings, the characters themselves for the most part. Everything has weight, except, ironically, for the damn anchor that kills Frankie, which bounces into the air like it was made of styrofoam.

The movie is such a colossal failure of design and animation that it's almost spurious to point out that it's also terribly written: the boilerplate plot has an unclear conflict, and Lenny never quite fits in with anything else. Both female characters are laughably underdeveloped - Angie in particular barely has any personality, and she's meant to be the most sympathetic character in the movie next to Lenny - and standing out as underdeveloped in this movie takes some real doing. Far too much of the story riffs on The Godfather and its ilk for the film to work as the story of Oscar learning not to be a greedy liar. The gags are horrible, uninspired retreads of Shrek 's reliance on ironic modernity and scatology - hence, for example, the octopus consigliere (Vincent Pastore) accidentally turning on "Baby Got Back" when Lino is trying to perform a shakedown; hence also a moment when the film stops for a good 15 seconds to let us reflect upon a gag where an elderly shark - voiced by Peter Falk, no less! - farts and offends the other sharks around him.

There are, in truth, many CG animated films that are uglier than this, mostly because they are cheaper. There are very, very few that are this uninspired, this misconceived, and this obnoxious to basic senses of humor and decency. Shark Tale lacks even a trace of inspiration, and stands proud as the most soul-dead, commercially focused children's movie in an era where such things became an art form. Naturally it became a smash hit, but I take immense joy in knowing that not even the reliably craven DreamWorks thought they could put over a sequel. The continuing adventures of this universe would be far too much to bear.