In Reef City, an underachieving bluestreak cleaner wrasse named Oscar fantasizes about being rich and famous while making his way to work as a tongue scrubber at the local Whale Wash, a job in which he is following in his father's footsteps. Soon after arriving he is called to the office of his boss, a pufferfish named Sykes, to discuss the fact that he owes "five thousand clams" and has to pay it back by the next day. After explaining this to his angelfish best friend Angie, she offers him a chance to pay back the money by pawning a pink pearl that was a gift from her grandmother. Oscar brings the money to the race track to meet Sykes, but becomes distracted by his dreams of grandeur. Upon hearing that the race is rigged, he places it all on a long-shot bet by the name of "Lucky Day". Such a million dollar bet is noticed nearby by a beautiful lionfish named Lola, who flagrantly seduces an excited Oscar, but Oscar is disappointed when she leaves upon learning that he is a whale washer. Sykes is furious that Oscar bet the money but nonetheless agrees to see how the race turns out. Moments before their betted "horse" crosses the finish line, he trips and falls on the line.
Meanwhile, outside of the reef in the wreck of an old ocean liner a family of criminally-inclined great white sharks has a problem with one of their sons, Lenny, who is a vegetarian and refuses to act the part of a killer, wishing not to have to live up to those expectations. His crime lord father, Don Edward Lino, orders Lenny's more savage older brother Frankie to tutor Lenny in the family business. After the two sharks depart their father, Frankie sees Oscar being electrocuted by Sykes' two jellyfish enforcers Ernie and Bernie and sends Lenny off to attack. The jellyfish spots Lenny and flee, leaving Oscar alone with him. Lenny frees him, upsetting Frankie who becomes annoyed and charges at Oscar. However, Frankie is killed when an anchor falls on him. Lenny flees, overcome with grief, sadness and guilt. As no other witnesses were present and Oscar was seen near the body, everyone comes to believe that he killed Frankie, an opportunity that Oscar decides to exploit for fame.
Oscar returns to the city with a new title of the Sharkslayer. Sykes becomes his manager, Lola becomes his girlfriend, and Oscar moves to the "top of the reef" to live in luxury. At the same time, after Frankie's funeral, Don Lino has everyone out looking for Lenny. When several sharks get close to Oscar's neighborhood, Oscar's neighbors expect him to drive them away so he goes and runs into Lenny. Since he does not wish to return home, Lenny forces Oscar to let him stay with him since he is aware of Oscar's lie. Soon, Angie finds out about the lie as well and threatens to tell everyone. Oscar and Lenny convince her to keep quiet, though she is heartbroken by Oscar's dishonesty. Oscar's situation is not helped by the shallowed Lola, who indicates to him that her interest in him extends only as far as he remains famous. With Don Lino planning revenge, Oscar and Lenny stage an event in which Lenny pretends to terrorize the town and Oscar must defeat him throwing him into the depths of the ocean. Though this further cements Oscar as the Sharkslayer, it greatly angers Don Lino. Oscar leaves Lola for Angie after Angie reveals that she had feelings for Oscar even before he became famous, but this leaves the rebuffed Lola determined to get revenge.
Oscar buys some Valentine's Day gifts for Angie, but before he can present them to her, he finds that Don Lino has kidnapped Angie to force a sit-down. Lenny comes along now disguised as a dolphin named Sebastian. They arrive at the meeting to find Lola next to Don Lino, while Angie is tied up and gagged and presented to Don Lino on a plate who prepares to eat her if Oscar does not comply. Lenny grabs Angie into his mouth, but later regurgitates her. When Don Lino realizes that "Sebastian" is really Lenny, he chases Oscar through the reef. Oscar heads for the Whale Wash and ends up trapping both sharks. He is given an ovation by the other fish, but Oscar confesses that he is not a "Sharkslayer" and reveals the truth behind Frankie's death. He then tells Don Lino that everyone likes Lenny for who he is and strongly urges him not to prejudge people before he knows them properly and make the mistakes he made in prejudging his wealth. Realizing that Oscar is right, Don Lino apologizes to Lenny and reconciles with him while making peace with Oscar, stating that he and his gang bear him no ill will. Oscar forsakes all the wealth he has acquired, makes peace with the sharks, becomes co-manager of the Whale Wash (now frequented by sharks, killer whales, and swordfish), and starts dating Angie and enjoys a happy, honest life.
During the credits, Lola tries to find Oscar to make amends, but all she finds is a hermit crab named Crazy Joe, one of Oscar's friends.Will Smith as Oscar, an underachieving bluestreak cleaner wrasse worker in the Whale Wash of Reef City who wants to be rich, but his schemes always fail and he ends up owing five thousand clams to his boss.
Robert De Niro as Don Edward Lino, a great white shark and leader of a mob of criminally-inclined great white sharks, who wants his two sons to take over his business and run it together, but becomes infuriated when Oscar gets in the way following one of his sons' death. James Gandolfini was originally set to voice the character, but had to drop out.
Renée Zellweger as Angie, Oscar's angelfish best friend and co-worker, who harbors a secret unrequited love for him.
Jack Black as Lenny Lino, Don Lino's youngest son, who is a vegetarian.
Angelina Jolie as Lola, a seductive female gold-digger lionfish whom Oscar develops a romantic interest in.
Martin Scorsese as Sykes, the pufferfish owner of the Whale Wash and a loan shark to whom Oscar owes five thousand clams. He once worked with Don Lino, but was thrown out and called in his debts to pay off the gangster.
Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug as Ernie and Bernie, two Jamaican jellyfish and Sykes' enforcers, who enjoy jabbing Oscar with their vicious stingers when he is in trouble with their boss.
Michael Imperioli as Frankie Lino, Lenny's older brother and Don Lino's eldest and more savage son, who shares embarrassment of Lenny's vegetarian tendencies with his father.
Vincent Pastore as Luca, Don Lino's green octopus "left-hand, right-hand man", with a tendency to state the obvious much to Lino's annoyance.
Peter Falk as Don Ira Feinberg, an elderly leopard shark and leader of a mob of criminally-inclined leopard sharks, who is a friend of Don Lino performing karaoke (badly) at the sharks' headquarters.
Katie Couric as Katie Current, the local reporter of Reef City in the U.S. release. At the time, Katie Couric hosted Today in America. In the Australian release, then local Today co-host Tracy Grimshaw dubbed the lines. Fiona Phillips of the UK's GMTV performed the voice for the British release of the film. Cristina Parodi of Italy's Verissimo provided the Italian version of the character.
David P. Smith as Crazy Joe, a deranged hermit crab who is Oscar's other friend. He normally lives in a dumpster near the Whale Wash.
The film was originally developed under the title of Sharkslayer. By September 2003, however, it had been retitled Shark Tale, to make it less violent and more family friendly. Bill Damaschke, the producer of the film, explained the change of the title: "We set out to make a movie a little more noir, perhaps a little darker than where we've landed." In April 2002, production officially began.
The film was produced concurrently with Finding Nemo, another animated film set underwater, which was released a year and a half before Shark Tale. DreamWorks Animation's CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg, defended the film, saying that "any similarities are mere coincidence. We've been open with the Pixar people so we don't step on each other's toes."
Shark Tale had its worldwide premiere on September 10, 2004 in Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy. Screening as part of the Venice Film Festival, it marked the first time that Piazza San Marco was closed for a premiere of a major feature film. The film was projected on the largest inflatable screen in the world, measuring more than six stories tall and over 3,900 square feet (360 m2). It required 20,000 cubic feet (570 m3) of air to inflate and more than 50 tons of water for stabilization. The premiere was attended by 6,000 visitors, including Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro and Michael Imperioli. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the executive producer of the film, explained that they "wanted to find a unique way to introduce this movie to the world. We needed a big idea. ... More than anything, we are in showbusiness. This is the show part."
Shark Tale opened at #1 with $47.6 million, which was, at the time, the second highest opening for a DreamWorks Animation film behind Shrek 2 ($108 million). It remained as the #1 film in the U.S. and Canada for its second and third weekends.
Overall, the movie grossed $160,861,908 in North America and $206,413,111 internationally, bringing its worldwide total to $367,275,019.
The film received a 35% "Rotten" rating at the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus: "Derivative and full of pop culture in-jokes." On another review aggregator, Metacritic, the film holds a 48 out of 100 rating or "mixed or average reviews." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A-" on an A+ to F scale.
John Mancini, the founder of the Italic Institute of America, protested Shark Tale for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans. DreamWorks reacted by changing the name of Peter Falk's character from Don Brizzi to Don Feinberg. However, Mancini demanded that everything Italian—character names, the mannerisms, the forms of speech—be dropped. The American Family Association, a Christian conservative organization, raised concerns about Shark Tale, suggesting that it was designed to promote the acceptance of gay rights by children.
Roger Ebert gave Shark Tale two out of four stars, observing, "Since the target audience for Shark Tale is presumably kids and younger teenagers, how many of them have seen the R-rated Godfather and will get all the inside jokes? Not a few, I suppose, and some of its characters and dialogue have passed into common knowledge. But it's strange that a kid-oriented film would be based on parody of a 1972 gangster movie for adults." He also opined that younger viewers would have trouble enjoying a film about adult characters with adult problems, such as an elaborate love triangle and a main character wanting to clear his debt with loan sharks, and compared it to more successful fish-focused animated features like Pixar Animation Studios' Finding Nemo, which Ebert felt featured a simpler plot that audiences could more easily identify with. However, Richard Roeper commented that although the film wasn't on the same level as Finding Nemo, it was definitely a film worth seeing.
Shark Tale was released on DVD and VHS on February 8, 2005, accompanied with a DVD exclusive animated short film Club Oscar. The three and a half minute short film continues where the main film ends, showing the characters of Shark Tale dancing at the whale wash to a spoof of Saturday Night Fever. It was also released on Game Boy Advance Video in October 2005.
Shark Tale: Motion Picture Soundtrack was released on September 21, 2004. The soundtrack features newly recorded music by various artists, including Justin Timberlake with Timbaland, Christina Aguilera, JoJo, Ludacris, Mary J. Blige, and Will Smith, and also features the first song recorded by pop group The Pussycat Dolls as well as the film's closing theme composed by Hans Zimmer.
Janet Jackson and Beyoncé initially planned to record a duet for the film's soundtrack. Jackson's frequent collaborator Jimmy Jam, who had recently worked with Beyoncé for The Fighting Temptations soundtrack, commented "Obviously we'd love to have the involvement of Janet and Beyonce, who we just worked with on Fighting Temptations. They've already expressed interest", adding "There are a lot of opportunities with an animated piece to work with some different people." Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks' Animations, had appointed Jackson's producers Jam & Lewis to be involved with the soundtrack, though the duo only ended up producing only one song for the film, with Jam saying "We worked for DreamWorks before on the Bryan Adams song for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the Boyz II Men tune for The Prince of Egypt, and Katzenberg is a fan of what we do. He thought we would be perfect to do the music for Shark Tale."
In April 2011, Jeffrey Katzenberg commented that the studio did not have plans to produce future movie genre parodies, like Shark Tale, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Megamind, saying that these films "all shared an approach and tone and idea of parody, and did not travel well internationally. We don't have anything like that coming on our schedule now."
A video game based on the film was released on September 29, 2004 for Microsoft Windows, Xbox, GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Game Boy Advance. Published by Activision, Edge of Reality developed the console versions of the game, while Vicarious Visions developed the Game Boy Advance version, and Amaze Entertainment developed the PC version. The cast from the film did not reprise their roles in the game.