Help! I'm A Fish

Adequate aquatic adventure acquires apt and accurate appellation.

Released in 2001, certified UK-U. Reviewed on 31 Jan 2003 by Scott Morris
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All truly great films have contained elements that we can relate to on a personal level, and who among us can claim not to have cried out for help at one point or another? It is unlikely, however, that the perturbance was the same as befalls the unfortunate trio of children starring in this animated tale. The wonderfully descriptive title should provide you with a brief summary of the plot.

This film from Dutch duo Michael Hegner and Stefan Fjeldmark was an unlikely challenger to Disney's domination of the animation market (non-Pokemon sector), and indeed it didn't set the box office on fire. The same can be said for most of Disney's output (non-Pixar sector) too, so perhaps reading too much into this is ill advised. The tale itself concerns the improbably named Fly, a fairly typical skateboard wielding Dennis / Bart Simpson hybrid. He's about to go fishing before he's stopped by his parents, as they're going off out. To baby-sit Fly and his little sister Stella they wheel in rotund Aunt Anna, along with rotund cousin Chuck. Chuck's your standard geeky fat kid, super-intelligent but a total dweeb, so there's obvious tension between him and his more sports oriented cousin. Stella, being the littlest, has that Nermal-ish ultra-cute quality applied to her. All these characters are quite astonishingly unoriginal, and could easily have become hugely annoying awfully quickly. Thankfully, this has for the most part been avoided thanks to the accomplished voice actors used for the principles.

The gang manage to escape the shackles of the babysitter, and despite Chuck's protests head off fishing. As Fly casts away, Stella discovers a small seahorse trapped in a shallow pool cut off from the ocean. She christens her Sasha and wants to keep her, but the others talk some sense into her and throw the seahorse back to the ocean. Fly continues fishing, oblivious to the tide, which rapidly comes in and cuts them off. We are saved from a very short feature by a handy secret door, which they tumble down into a handier hidden lair, strangely housing a galleon. The occupant of this underground facility isn't Dr. Evil, but Professor MacKrill, voiced by Terry Jones. He's clearly having fun with his role as a stereotypical absent-minded nutty professor. He's worried about global warming raising sea levels, and has created a potion that allows humans to live underwater. He shares the secret of how to produce this potion by making a song and dance of it. Literally. There's a few of these musical numbers throughout the film, and certainly none of them are overly offensive, although featuring people who are exactly renowned for their singing performances. As they're mostly comedy numbers, the lack of range from the performers doesn't hurt them.

Unfortunately Stella is left unattended and drinks the potion while the others are distracted. She turns into a starfish. Fly stumbles across the fish lying about, and understandably doesn't recognise her. What with her being a fish and all. So he throws her back into the ocean. Unfortunately, if the antidote is not taken within 48 hours she will remain a fish forever. After they work out what has happened to her, they take out a boat to search for her with little success. Fly decides the only way to find her is to take the potion and follow her in, turning into a flying fish. Not a moment too soon, as the boat containing the Professor, Chucky and the potion antidote sinks in high storms. Chucky is unable to swim, so takes some of the potion, turning into a jellyfish. The Prof. vanishes, presumed to be visiting Davey Jones's locker. The bottle leaks, and two fish, a shark and a pilot fish swim through the affected water. This has the undocumented side effect of granting them the power of speech and intelligence, although Joe the pilot fish acquires a lot more than the shark. He's voiced by Alan Rickman, excellent as ever. He immediately sees the possibilities of this potion, and starts creating flunkies to help him in his conquest of the ocean. They change appearance on drinking the potion, with Joe bizarrely becoming reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's Joker from Batman.

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Stella has contrived to run into Sasha again, and the two become friends. Fly and Chucky track them down without too much trouble, and go off in search of the antidote. They find out about Joe's plans, and head off to his lair inside a sunken ship. He's holding the aquatic equivalent of the Nuremberg rallies, in front of thousands of adoring worshippers. Fly, being foolishly headstrong tries to regain the potion from Joe, who has them arrested and thrown into prison, guarded by Sgt. Crab. Who's a crab. You may have figured that one out by yourselves. The seahorse is sent to the workcamps, where Joe is having a monolithic statue created in his image, because he can. Admit it, you would too.

Fly fails to trick the crustacean into letting them out, however Sasha has more success in escaping the camps, and manages to help them escape after the crab falls asleep. The combined might of the shark and the crab can't recapture them. This angers Joe, who orders their execution, ordering the shark to eat the crab and then eat himself. He quickly realises the futility of this plan, and decides to forgive him and send them back after the kids.

They realise that they can create the antidote themselves, as the professor's song lists the ingredients. They go off collecting them, the final ingredient being the most troublesome. Octopus ink can only be had from frightening an octopus, which is problematic if you're a thirtieth the size of it. The appearance of the shark and an army of crabs provides the necessary scariness to get the ink, however they are recaptured.

Meanwhile the Professor has made his way back home inside a barrel, arriving back as the kid's concerned parents arrive. He convinces them of what has transpired and they sail out to try and find them, taking along with them what can be best described as a vortex-tsunami-vacuum-generator for use in capturing a great many fish. Prof. MacKrill certainly has a few strings to his bow.

In a bid to get Fly to reveal the secret of the potion, Joe fires the shark on account of his astonishing stupidity and tries to convince Fly to be his right hand man/fish. The shark takes exception to this and attacks Joe. Sgt Crab is upset at being passed over for promotion, and voices his malcontent, but still goes after Fly when he makes a break, and grievously wounds him. Things look bleak for the kids an army of crabs march towards them, but they are save by a timely intervention from the vortex generator. The antidote gone and Fly wounded, Chuck stops being a total tool and comes up with a dangerous plan to get the potion that's inside the Prof.'s galleon, involving swimming up the water intake, avoiding the pump and the tank of piranhas the pipe ends in. It's deemed too dangerous for little fish like Sasha, so she and Stella have a tearful break-up, which surprisingly isn't incredibly annoying, and is almost touching.

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Joe isn't a fish to give up easily, and follows them. Chuck manages to block the tank outlet with the piranhas, because piranhas are dumb. The tank overflows, allowing them access to the lab. Joe releases the piranhas and escapes with the potion, forcing Chuck to fight them off. Fly chases Joe, and uses the unlikely strategy of asking him difficult questions. Joe can't answer, so drinks more potion. More questions, more potion drinking. Unfortunately for Joe, drinking too much of the potion turns him into a human. Humans are not renowned for their underwater breathing ability, and so Joe drowns. How many fine megalomaniacal dictators will we lose in this manner before the government takes action? It's a travesty, I tells ya.

So all's well that ends well, which was never in doubt really. There isn't really too much in the way of originality in this film, from the plot to the characters to the location, we'll have seen all of this before. Somehow none of this sinks (ho-ho-ho) the movie, which has a certain charm to it that's quite difficult to quantify. Certainly the voice acting helps, only the shark and crab being a tad subpar, with everyone else giving a warmth and depth to the characters which the script doesn't really provide. It's hard to imagine this film getting to 'bearable' level without this contribution, and with any other cast may have failed utterly.

The animation in a mix of the traditional cel shading and computer graphics, as is common these days. This is a difficult balance to strike without it looking peculiar, something no western attempt I've seen has managed. Unfortunately this is no exception. Certain things work better than others, and it does make those particular bit look more realistic, such as the texture and bump mapping on the octopus. However, it sticks out like a sore thumb against the cel shaded principle characters, as do all the other attempts. Possibly I wouldn't feel this way having only seen the other western attempts such a Titan AE, as it's certainly no worse than any of them. It only pales when compared with the seamless way computer technology has been used in Japanese works such as Blood: The Last Vampire and the awesome Metropolis, which manage to combine the two techniques without you really recognising that it's been near a computer at all, which is surely the point.

The orchestral score throughout is very good, and the few cheesy songs associated with the movie aren't awful, and some such as Eddi Reader's contribution Ocean Love are actually pretty nifty. Aside from the computer graphic elements the film is well animated, with some distinctive character design. Terry Jones makes a tired mad professor caricature amusing against all odds, and with little help from his lines, while Alan Rickman lends Joe his usual air of refined threatening elegance, albeit limited by this being a kid's movie. That said, if you aren't a kid, is this worth watching? Hmmm. It doesn't really do anything badly, and were you forced to watch it as part of babysitting duty or something it won't force you to gouge your eyeballs out to make it stop, but it doesn't have anything like the crossover appeal Shrek or the Pixar films do. It nips along at a fair pace do it never has too much time to be boring, as long as you switch off your jaded cynicism. I suppose it's a film saved from mediocrity by the performances of the voice actors, but you and the kids would probably get more joy out of watching Toy Story again. Should you require an alternative however, you could certainly do worse than Help! I'm A Fish.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks, gaining a point for not being Pokemon.

DVD Notes:- The transfer passes muster, and anamorphic to boot. Audio in both 5.1 and 2.0, unfortunately not including the Norwegian version. Also included are trailers, a short making of featurette, some short interviews with the director, animators and Jones and Rickman. Cast and director filmographies, a music video of one of the less bearable songs and a multi-angle scene comparison round of the disc. A reasonable haul for a throwaway DVD like this.

Stefan Fjeldmark
Cast list:
Alan Rickman (Joe)
Terry Jones (Professor MacKrill)
David Bateson (The Shark / The Crab)
Jeff Pace (Fly)
Aaron Paul (Chuck)
Michelle Westerson (Stella)