Film Reviews: Wednesday,May 29, 2003
Finding Nemo\r\nVoices by Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Written by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds. Rated PG.\r\n
Sterling Marlin

No need to fish for compliments about the exhilarating Finding Nemo.


Pixar Animation Studios made its feature debut in 1995 with Toy Story, and it has been so successful in the eight years since that people now seriously discuss the impending death of traditional hand-drawn animation. That idea’s presumptuous; it’s true that Pixar’s movies have been more appealing, not to mention profitable, than the hand-drawn pictures put out by Disney and other studios in recent years, but the reason for that goes beyond the computer animation’s splashy colors and tactile surfaces (which have been successfully imitated in DreamWorks’ Shrek and Fox Animation’s Ice Age). Pixar’s films are superior to their lower-tech counterparts because of better writing — funnier dialogue, more inventive sight gags, and the type of character development that renders monsters, insects, and toys every bit as human as us. The Toy Story films in particular deal with issues of abandonment and mortality with more maturity and wisdom than most live-action films made for grown-ups. On the other hand, Pixar’s non-toy films, A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc., have been merely high-level pieces of entertainment.

Until now, that is. Their latest film, Finding Nemo, is an exhilarating and exhausting piece of work. It is not a warm and cuddly kids’ movie, and anyone expecting one will walk out of the film thoroughly frazzled. Instead of taking place in a kid’s bedroom, the story is set in an ocean filled with predators, and the main characters are in a state of constant jeopardy. This holds true from the beginning, when an anemone-dwelling clownfish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) loses his mate and all but one of their 400 eggs in an attack outside his home. Years later, the egg has hatched into Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), and Marlin has all too credibly grown into a paranoid, overprotective single parent. When Nemo inevitably chafes at his dad’s restrictions and explores a forbidden patch of water on his own, he gets scooped up by a scuba diver and taken aboard a boat. With his worst fears come true, Marlin embarks on a frantic search for his son.

En route, he dodges ravenous seagulls, fishermen’s nets, poisonous jellyfish, and (hilariously) three touchy-feely sharks who have formed an AA-like support group for their addiction to fish (complete with their version of the Serenity Prayer), but who are liable to fall off the wagon at the first smell of blood. Meanwhile, Nemo winds up in a fish tank in a dentist’s office in Sydney, and though there’s peril even in that tank, it’s a great location mainly because it’s so problematic; how does Marlin reach Nemo in there and get him out? The solution’s ingenuity demonstrates how underrated Pixar’s movies are as action films. Their sequences rival those of the Wachowski brothers or any other live-action filmmakers.

The hectic pace swirls the action and the comedy together into one big, disorienting vortex. A bubble-brained fish named Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) drifts into the search as Marlin’s sidekick, and her blithe obliviousness to danger lightens the mood and heightens the suspense at the same time — she comes face to face with a great white shark (voiced with delicious irony by Barry Humphries a.k.a. “Dame Edna Everage”) and greets him with a sociable “Hi!” The worry-wart Brooks and the sunny DeGeneres are such a natural pairing that you can’t believe no one thought of it before, just as it was with Billy Crystal and John Goodman in Monsters, Inc. and Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in the Toy Story films.

It reminds us that the Pixar people are geniuses at casting, along with everything else. The marine creatures’ dazzling colors are matched by a profusion of accents in their voices — the sharks and pelicans are Australian, the lobsters hail from south Boston, and a helpful sea turtle talks like a California surfer dude (a particularly fun creation voiced by director Andrew Stanton). The cast runs the gamut from purely comic (seamless ensemble work by Brad Garrett, Vicki Lewis, Austin Pendleton, and Stephen Root as Nemo’s fellow fish-tank inhabitants) to purely dramatic (an effective tough-guy turn by Willem Dafoe as the hard-bitten big fish in the tank). Most of the roles fall in the middle, and the actors come through marvelously on the many occasions when their comic characters show unsuspected depth — Allison Janney’s goofy starfish betraying soul-shaking terror after Nemo narrowly escapes death, Geoffrey Rush’s bumbling pelican expressing sorrow over the little fish’s apparent demise. That last bit comes near the end, and though we know that Nemo is alive and well, the scene that follows between Marlin and Dory is authentically devastating.

Those moments are balanced by many others of high comedy, and the cumulative effect is emotionally draining. Nevertheless, as vertiginous as it is, the movie is built on a solid foundation. It’s a story about the need for parents to let their kids grow up and make their own way, even if their world is one where violence and sudden death are never far away. Finding Nemo strays into some very dark territory, but its good humor in the face of that makes it the brightest movie out there.

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