Rated G - Running Time: 1:41 - Released 5/30/03

From the minds, pens, and hard drives of Pixar Animation Studios comes Finding Nemo, the latest in an ever-lengthening line of inspired animated features produced by that company and lovingly funneled to us through the omnipresent Walt Disney Pictures distribution conduit. Returning to the open sea, which served as the setting for the vanguard picture of the Disney cartoon renaissance (namely, 1989’s The Little Mermaid), this movie offers up another dose of computer-animated genius no less vibrant than Pixar’s previous full-length outings, inaugurated in 1995 by the revolutionary Toy Story and followed with astoundingly consistent success by A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc. Written by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds, and directed by Stanton and Lee Unkrich, the film plumbs the depths of the Australian ocean system while diving deeply into the special type of love felt between a father and a son. Disney cartoons have been criticized before for not portraying healthy familial relationships, especially involving fathers; that viewpoint would have to be adjusted following this film, which offers the most touching father-son relationship in recent memory from the Mouse House studios.

While Nemo does not disappoint at being fun and humorous, it begins on a surprisingly harsh note when a mother clownfish (voice of Elizabeth Perkins) and nearly her whole brood of unhatched eggs are presumably eaten, leaving her spouse, Marlin (not actually a marlin but another clownfish, voiced by Albert Brooks), alone with the one solitary remaining egg, whom he lovingly christens “Nemo.” After the small fry has grown to school age (and into the voice of Alexander Gould), he shows the usual curiosity toward the vast and colorful and incredibly rendered undersea world, but his overprotective father balks at letting him out of the home, especially since he has decreased swimming ability thanks to a malformed right fin. Finally he relents, but Nemo promptly disappears after swimming too close to a boatful of scuba-divers and being netted for aquarium use. With only a mask left behind containing a name and address in Sydney, Marlin vows to find and rescue his son, even if it means swimming all seven of the seas. Soon he meets Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a pretty blue tang who can read but suffers from short-term memory loss, and they set out together on the titular quest, although Dory constantly has to be reminded what they’re doing and who Nemo is.

Meanwhile, Nemo becomes the newest resident of an aquarium owned by a Sydney dentist, and is welcomed by a varied community of tropical fish voiced by Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett, Vicki Lewis, Austin Pendelton, and several others, who have all been waiting for the arrival of someone small enough to fit in the aquarium filter and help them with their escape plan. While they are working together toward freedom, Marlin and Dory deal with numerous aquatic friends and foes, including a ferocious-looking shark (Barry Humphries) who has entered a 12-step program to give up eating fish (but occasionally backslides), a thick forest of deadly jellyfish, a surfing sea turtle (writer-director Stanton), and a fish-friendly pelican (Geoffrey Rush), among others.

It has become so common of late for animated features (especially Pixar features) to be spectacular, it almost feels unnecessary to discuss it, but each new opus seems to expand the envelope of creativity, ingenuity, and artistic beauty. In this film, for instance, I noticed in particular the difference in clarity between the undersea scenes and the aquarium scenes. Although the varied and beautiful color palette was evident in both venues, the artists imbued the richly detailed ocean sequences with a subtle cloudiness, imperfect vegetation, and tiny floating particles, not to mention the exquisite play of light filtered through the blue-green water, which lets us know immediately that this is the natural world, as opposed to the crystal-clear water and plastic plants in the dentist’s artificial aquatic habitat. This kind of attention to detail is what impresses me most about the animation; the characters are all cute and funny and lovable (at least those who are supposed to be lovable), but the backgrounds and special settings are absolutely awe-inspiring, unlike some animated films whose background paintings seem flat and perfunctory compared to the character animation. And this is not limited to underwater scenes; Nemo’s occasional above-ground sequences are equally beautiful.

Of course, in addition to the quality of visual art (all the more astounding because it was created out of pixels instead of paint), the script is once again sloshing over with cleverness and humor, allowing the actors, DeGeneres especially, to shine with hilarious characterizations and heartwarming poignancy. As I stated, the father-son relationship between Marlin and Nemo touched me in a way I did not expect nor have ever experienced with an animated feature, perhaps in part because of my own experiences with fatherhood (and sonhood), and the numerous supporting characters add an ocean of depth and a seemingly bottomless well of hilarity.

Finding Nemo is undoubtedly another jewel in the Pixar crown and another example of the Disney conglomerate’s ability to ride that company's coattails to success. But besides this and perhaps more importantly, it answers the age-old question of what seagulls are saying when we feed them french fries on the beach. *****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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