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Finding Nemo   A

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: G
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writer: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Brad Garrett, Barry Humphries.

Review by Rob Vaux

"They've got a pretty good track record," Randy Newman quipped last year at the Oscars as he accepted his Best Song award for Monsters Inc. He was referring to Pixar studios, the computer animation giant that produced Monsters, along with Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life. That's four in a row, ranging from the pretty darn good to the indisputable modern classic. Each one different, each one diverse in tone and subject matter, and yet each one bearing the distinctive stamp of Pixar's clever ethos.

With Finding Nemo, you can make it five.

This summer's strongest entry in the family-fare rally has everything we've come to expect from Pixar -- gorgeous animation, fun characters, a smart script that plays equally well to adults and children -- while avoiding the minor story problems that detracted from Monsters Inc. It feels sharper and tighter than its predecessor, while finding yet another terrific idea upon which to unleash its unique computer visuals. The setting here is the Great Barrier Reef, where tropical fish of all varieties exist in a weirdly skewed variation of suburban human life. Tragedy strikes when a young clown fish named Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) is captured by a poacher and ends up in the tank of a Sydney dental office. Nemo's widower father Marlin (Albert Brooks) launches an epic journey to find him, hampered by his chronic worrying (he's played much the way Brooks' human characters are) but aided by a perky blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), whose short-term memory loss makes for the film's best running gag.

Their path is strewn with the standard amount of twists and turns, along with a cast of funny and memorable characters, including an extreme sport-loving turtle named Crush (voiced by the director, Andrew Stanton) and a trio of sharks who have entered a self-help program to control their bloodlust. Meanwhile, Nemo and his fellow fish-tank prisoners (led by Gill, a scarred Moorish idol voiced by Willem Dafoe) plot an escape that ranks as the funniest take on the notion since Chicken Run. Finding Nemo's screenplay handles all these notions with Pixar's trademark deft touch, and the roller coaster of plot complications pays off with a confident sense of pace and timing (something Monsters Inc. never quite mastered). The humor relies largely on broad behavioral satire, but remains smart and sophisticated at all times... while still maintaining the elegant simplicity necessary to keep the children engaged.

While none this is any surprise, the technical aspects of Finding Nemo have a quiet power that even Pixar's best films haven't matched. Besides the gorgeous patterns of color and light that mark its undersea universe, such delicate elements as the ocean's scintillating surface, the reflective glass of a scuba diver's mask, or the build-up of scum on Nemo's fish tank/prison, are all so instantly believable that we forget the enormous technical achievement of what went into them. Finding Nemo lacks any obvious gee-whiz innovations, but the overall effect feels much more fleshed out and developed than anything the studio has done before.

So too do the characters exhibit a staggering emotional range, which is all the more surprising considering their simple nature. Pixar's other films had the benefit of anthropomorphic figures -- characters who looked human even if they weren't. Finding Nemo lacks that luxury, and yet still attains the same depth and complexity by doing more with less (ironically, it's the film's distant human characters who seem the most artificial). Dory is particularly impressive. While DeGeneres' charming vocal performance may provide some subliminal help, it's largely the work of the animators, who conjure a stunning array of expressions for her with nothing more than two eyes and a tiny fish mouth. With the novelty of computer animation now past -- and the story itself so seamlessly merged with the visuals -- it's easy to forget how amazing a creation like this can be.

Then again, "amazing" is just another day at the office for Pixar. How many other directors, stars, or other creative forces have assembled this many solid films in a row? I can count the number of others on the fingers of one hand -- with change to spare. Billy Wilder had a pretty good run in the 1950s. The Coens... maybe. A few others might filter up, depending upon your personal tastes, but any way you slice it, it's a hell of a trick... one which evades some of the best and brightest the film industry has to offer. And here stands Pixar, pulling it off with effortless ease and daring the rest of the world to catch it. Finding Nemo would be a terrific movie regardless of its pedigree, but as the fifth in a seemingly endless line of quality productions, it sets a standard that few could presume to challenge. Not bad for another fish story.

Review published 06.02.2003.

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