Shooting Fish all but rolls over on its back and begs to be scratched. It is stylish, clever, and charismatic, but not quite so much as it thinks it is—which is another kind of charm: naive conceit.

Dylan (Dan Futterman) and Jez (Stuart Townsend) are two young con men who have managed to live on nearly nothing by working about twice as hard at complicated confidence schemes as they would at normal jobs. Dylan is American, smooth, supposedly handsome, the talker of the pair; Jez is the engineering genius, a sweet, reticent, rock star-haired Brit who knows he’ll never get girls because Dylan keeps telling him so. Running a modern version of a “wire” scam, with amazing talking computers as the prize for their prey, the boys depend on the no-questions-asked assistance of the beautiful Georgie (Kate Beckinsale), who conspires with Jez in a bare back room while Dylan does all the slick stuff for clients out front. Georgie, a medical student looking for a little extra cash, doesn’t have to help out; she even claims to suspect the pair aren’t on the level. But she hangs around anyway because they’re fun and energetic, and clearly so immature that being con men isn’t their worst personality defect.

The trio, their shifting allegiances, and the ostentatiously bitchin’ sets are the best things about Shooting Fish. The traditionally female good-looker/ugly friend absurdity is refreshingly masculinized, although any sensitive girl will recognize Jez as the true chick magnet right away. Dylan expects to land the porcelain Georgie, but she’s attracted by Jez’s shyness and resourceful mind, and, of course, is already engaged to a sexist, uptight rotter. Dylan and Jez live in an abandoned water tower rigged up in high style, sort of Martha Stewart-on-Carnaby Street. Much of Shooting Fish plays like a Richard Lester movie in its self-conscious exuberance and total, unconvincingly insistent faith in the inherent adorableness of youth.

The misguided engagement betrays the worst things about this movie—a careless combination of the crudest narrative clichés tossed together with senseless plot turns. Like Deceiver, which should have been a bold and interesting first effort but was finally too arrogant to bother with—it thinks it can get away with any number of expedient plot turns. Shooting Fish depends on absurd assumptions and plausibilties—that Georgie, the top medical student, never catches on to the boys’ real game; that British currency will be decisively overhauled; that various deaths, deals, and drugs all work when they’re supposed to. Shooting Fish is charming, energetic, gorgeous to look at, and thoroughly entertaining. But, like the stunning but perennially broke boyfriend who gets caught in too many lies, by extending its credibility this far and this often, the movie ends up becoming merely exhausting.

Quest for Camelot isn’t shy about its Warner Bros. provenance, but the shadow of this game’s gold standard—Disney—is inescapable. And as proof that Warner Bros.’ interest in the animated feature is sly and opportunistic, the gentle, unprogressive, song-stuffed Camelot isn’t the studio’s first effort, but its second—after the incestuous product-placement orgy that was Space Jam.

As Disney picked up and turned over well-known fairy tales during its heyday of bringing them to film, it subtly transformed them into an entirely separate form—in a true sea change from one rigorous structure into another. Modern animated movies have less to do with storytelling than with hitting all the expected marks at all the right times, with songs, props, and effects built in with plastic price-tagged versions of the same in mind. This isn’t news to most parents, but the realization that the 6-year-old behind you can and will announce each line and scene the moment before it happens is a measure of the distressingly small amount of faith its makers have in the entertainment value of their product.

Quest for Camelot is a stark, paint-by-numbers example of this new genre: headstrong heroine, loving family, martyred dad; idyllic political existence threatened by extravagantly animated villain; handsome love interest just a wee bit stronger than heroine; one realistic animal sidekick that does not talk; two wacky mythical sidekicks, one fat and slobby, the other fussy.

The whole setup is treated with narrative laziness because fancy computer-generated imagery can do all the emotional work, even though it doesn’t. Like 20th-Century Fox’s Anastasia, Camelot draws from live-action motion for some overly fluid, off-putting movement, especially among the women, who are crudely animated yet undulate eerily. For a split second at the very beginning, it looks as if the animators have re-created Camelot from one of its purported sites, Tintagel on the harsh English coast, but soon it’s clear that this Camelot bears no relation to a layout, architectural or civic, we might recognize; it’s just another unlikely shining city on a hill. Later, the magic of computers brings to life a stone ogre in 3-D, in a cheap parlor trick that’s more distracting than anything else.

Briefly, then, Quest for Camelot is the misleading new name for a story copped from Vera Chapman’s novel The King’s Damosel. Since no one pays much attention to Mallory anymore, the Arthurian details hardly matter. Little Kayley is the child of a knight, Sir Lionel, and wants to be a knight as well. Sir Lionel dies bravely defending King Arthur, and in a growing-while-singing-to-one’s-reflection-in-a-convenient-fountain montage, we learn that Kayley is, to the confusion of the audience, a young lady. (Jessalyn Gilsig did the speaking voice, Andrea Corr the singing.) When a rogue knight whom Arthur should have suspected of bad intentions—he has literally no forehead or brain space and is voiced by Gary Oldman—steals Excalibur, Kayley must use all her knightly self-training to return the sword to Arthur.

She wends her way into the Forbidden Forest, meets a handsome young man named Garrett, an ex-knight apprentice who retired to the forest after being blinded in an accident. (Cary Elwes, who would have looked much less weird than this animated version, does the voice; Bryan White sings in a straining, jarringly power rock-inflected manner.) Garrett has a clever falcon named Aden, and the three of them meet up with a harmless mutant dragon that provides the comedic relief and the zany song-and-dance number. I’ve never been convinced this standard odd-couple setup isn’t a gay goof; here the dragon—a bickering, two-headed beast named Devon & Cornwall—seems blatantly so. Lacking fire and wings, the dragon announces itself as the product of illicit sexuality (“We’re the reason cousins shouldn’t marry”). During their big love-hate number, “If I Didn’t Have You,” the two heads pose as Elvis, Sonny and Cher, and figures from Guernica; they spoof Tex Avery and Chuck Jones cartoons; later they smooch, turn green, and throw up, Cornwall griping, “You got your tongue on my gums.” Even kiddies are being offered wacky, celibate, “artistic” best pals to encourage them in their rose-covered hetero pursuits.

The inoffensive but forgettable score is mostly by Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster, much of it reprised once or twice to save on royalties; the Forbidden Forest is not terribly imaginative; Garrett’s blindness is an interesting twist Star Wars-ed up, and there are many bone-rattling Sensurround effects to compensate for the overall lack of excitement. Quest for Camelot isn’t bad, or evil, or all that boring, unless you’re that 6-year-old expert with a storyboard in his head; in fact—here’s a ringing endorsement—it’s better than the TV series Merlin.CP

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