Well we all know that Finding Nemo set the standard by which all other underwater CG films are compared and to date, few (if any) have managed to get the formula right. Beginning with DreamWorks’ Shark Tale and crossing over A Turtle's Tale: Sammy's Adventures 1 & 2, The Reef (and Reef 2), Dolphin: The Story of a Dreamer and ultimately ending with the abysmal Legend of the Sea; that’s roughly the order I’d place them in from best to worst but the question becomes where does Sea Level fit in all of this?
To cut to the chase, it ends up coming in closer to the “worse” side of the list though in all fairness it’s definitely better produced and certainly more tolerable than the unwatchable Legend of the Sea and actually trumps 20th Century Fox’s Dolphin the Story of a Dreamer in most categories as well. If none of this means anything to you, let’s take a look at the film on its own merits for a better understanding of where it succeeds and where it comes up short.
Sea Level comes to us by way of Silver Ant; a Malaysian animation outfit where it was originally called SeeFood and hit theaters in March of 2012. Working with 40 animators, the team took roughly two years to complete the animation process. Coming in at a runtime of 92-minutes, Sea Level boasts a very appropriate PG rating for animated intensity and some inappropriate language – parents, take this rating seriously. Children being called idiots, getting smacked around and the word “hell” all make appearances here.
The story centers on an unlikely duo- Pup, a young bamboo shark and Julius the intimidating but good hearted oceanic white-tip shark. Pup discovers egg sacs within his reef while exploring only to be startled by human poachers who show up out of seemingly nowhere and steal the eggs.
Determined to locate and restore the un-hatched shark eggs to their rightful environment, Pup sets out on a ridiculously challenging task, with the aid of Julius, a wise sea turtle, a shady sting-ray and a few other characters, to get the eggs back from the domain of humanity.
While seemingly straightforward a plot structure as a film geared for children should be; Sea Level’s greatest crime is that the delivery is incredibly muddled. Somewhere along the way, we have some good intentions like sharks being more than mindless killing machines, humanity is to blame for the disappearance of a lot of the ocean’s species, pollution is bad and so on but the trouble is they are so strangely integrated into the story that any value they may have originally contained are filtered right out. Take for example the ludicrous concept that fish, well at least this one particular bamboo shark, is capable of living on land and breathing air. In my opinion, this in and of itself undoes 99% of the film’s message (not to mention all of the research the crew allegedly did to master the movements, behaviors, and mannerisms of the actual animals appearing in the piece).
If this weren’t enough, by the end we have the other shark running around in a mech suit, we have an army of chickens hoping the sharks succeed, young kids getting arrested by the police and so on. In short, it doesn’t take much for the whole thing to come unraveled.
Then there are the environmental themes scattered about that really don’t make things any better for the floundering prose. Yes there is a plant shown dumping toxins into the ocean that we occasionally flash to and there is a scene where the sea turtle is struggling to get air on account of the plastic shopping bag wrapped around her head but then we’re given the subplot that an evil eel and his band of crabs are supporting the pollution as part of their plan for oceanic domination. Wait, the lesson here is that certain creatures are pro-pollution?
At the end of the day enough plot holes to drive a submarine through mixed with odd pacing that seems more like sequences were simply strung together than it does a continuous narrative will keep Sea Level from ever challenging the dominance of top entries in the genre.
In the plus column, the characters, backgrounds, animations, they’re all pretty nice. Rendering is smooth and clean, particle effects and layering are very well done. On account of the fact that film, though created in Malaysia, was originally recorded and animated in English means that moth flaps and timing are all spot-on (avoiding the biggest pitfall known to plague imported foreign animated works).
At the end of the day, Sea Level is by no means unwatchable but the beautifully drawn colorful DVD cover-art does little to portray some of the major inconsistencies contained within. Silver Ant displays a lot of potential, talent and passion in this piece but they would be wise to bring a western consultant on board for future projects should they wish to have a go at the leaders of the animated feature film industry.