After seeing FINDING NEMO, you just gotta ask yourself, is Pixar capable of making a bad film? Or even a mediocre one? Whether a serendipitous confluence of talent or a sign that there is some divine being at work in our world, either way, the answer, I think, must be no.
There is a touch of darkness here. At the beginning of our tale, we meet Marlin and Coral, two clownfish that are just as happy as clams with a new anemone with ocean views and a brood of 400 eggs that are about to hatch. Bliss is short lived. While Bambi only lost his mother, Marlin loses everything except one egg, whom he names Nemo. He promises to never let anything happen to him, which wouldn’t make much of a film. So as soon as our little guy is old enough to be annoyed at how overprotective Marlin is, he panics when snails get feisty at the petting zoo, Nemo does something very foolish that ends with him in an aquarium in Sydney dentist’s office and Marlin crossing the very treacherous ocean to find him. Hence the title. The action shifts back and forth between Marlin’s frequent cliffhangers with sharks, jellyfish and other assorted perils, and Nemo adjusting to life under glass with an assortment of fellow inmates who’ve gone, you’ll forgive the expression, just a little squirrelly from the confinement.
There is a great deal of attention to detail when it comes to rendering underwater life accurately, leaving aside the talking fish thing. Everything from familiar anemones to surreal nudibranchs could pass muster in a marine biology class. And while that’s perfectly splendid for all the budding Jacques Cousteaus out there, it wouldn’t matter a darn if it weren’t in service to a story that’s smart, funny, and full of one imaginative, nail-biting adventure after another. The sharks are 12-steppers with dolphin issues (they’re so cute). I don’t know why, but I just love the running joke about how everyone expects Marlin to be funny just because he’s a clownfish (he’s so not).
The fish have been rendered with astonishingly expressive faces, but that is secondary to the voice work that supports them. Those performances are among the best that ever lent themselves to animation. Among them are Willem Dafoe as Gill, a brooding Moorish idol who wants to bust out of the aquarium, Joe Ranft as an obsessive compulsive shrimp with Gallic tendencies, and Albert Brooks as Marlin, making nerdy parental concern at once poignant and absurd. It’s Ellen DeGeneres, though, who stands out as Dory, the regal blue tang who tags along with Marlin in his quest. Dory, though streamlined, is not exactly swift, if you catch my drift. She swims along with blithe insouciance about how cheerily annoying she is but in a way that is oddly charming. A holy fool who is innocently wise and profoundly naïve, she’s also an accident waiting to happen. The animators have rendered her mannerisms and facial expressions so well that Dorry even looks more than a little bit like DeGeneres herself. If she were blue and a fish, that is.
The rest of the animation is dazzling, both technically and artistically. A school of moonfish catches the sunlight refracted through the water, but each fish reflects it back just a little differently as the school plays a surprisingly effective game of group charades. A whale’s tongue, the which we get to see very close up, is potentially a slimy, lumpy source for a thousand kid’s nightmares. Not so flashy, but the most effective is they way the animators have realistically rendered the ocean itself and its inhabitants, whether swimming, floating, or racing along, the water subtley changes as it diffues the light from above or turbulence from below.
There’s a message here, too. Several actually and all delivered with such delicate understatement that they have a chance of making a point with the little ones. Nemo has a dwarfed fin, dubbed his lucky fin by Marlin, but the little guy isn’t phased by it or by the questions it causes. Dory makes a lot of mistakes, but her motto is to keep on swimming no matter what, though she tends to hum that motto in a particularly maddening way. As for Darla the fishkiller (don’t ask), if even one kid learns to respect his or her pet as a living creature after seeing her in action, the world will be a better place.
FINDING NEMO is great for kids, but it’s not aimed just at them. Don’t deprive yourself of seeing one of the cleverest films of this or any other summer. And don’t bolt as soon as story ends, either. The finned stars of the film cavort through the credits with a payoff at the end that is more than worth the wait.