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Finding Nemo

My friend Garth and I were discussing Pixar the other day. You might not know that name, but you know the movies they make: Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc. Garth and I are were arguing over which movie was better than the others. Garth took the majority view that Toy Story was the best, while I tried to argue for my favorite, A Bug's Life. But what we had no trouble agreeing on was that Pixar has raised the standard for animated movies. Well, if it's possible, Pixar has raised the bar even higher with their latest and best movie, Finding Nemo.

The story is a somewhat familiar one for Pixar fans. It's a combination of the nostalgic father-can't-believe-his-child-is-growing-up motif with the urgent man-on-a-quest tale. Marlin is a clown fish. You know, the wonderfully orange fish that lives inside the tentacles of an anemone. Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) is also a single dad; his wife was eaten by a larger fish just after their son Nemo was born. So Marlin is understandably protective of his son, probably too protective. He forces Nemo to recite their mantra "One thing we know about the ocean--it's not safe" and tries to hold him back from school. But he can't hold back time, and eventually Nemo has to go to school. But there Marlin's worst fears are realized when a human diver snatches Nemo away for his fish tank (Finding Nemo could set back the aquarium industry for years to come). Though Nemo is hundreds of miles away in who-knows-where, Marlin is determined to find his son. Along the way he finds a partner in Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a quirky, blue fish that is enthusiastic but saddled with the difficulty of short-term memory loss. The two pair up for a marvelous adventure, one that will take them from the darkness of the ocean floor through a beautiful but dangerous swarm of jellyfish into the mouth of a whale and beyond.

There are so many wonderful scenes in the movie. My favorite one might be when Marlin and Dory wander into a trio of sharks. But these sharks have formed their own 12-step program--one dedicated to seeing fish as friends, not as food. It's a hilarious send-up of AA programs and the like. The audience of jaded film critics laughed so hard that we drowned out many of the jokes. That didn't matter, though, because there were just more to come. Other fantastic moments include Nemo's first day of school, with the coolest sting-ray teacher you can imagine and Marlin's fretful anxiety over having to let go. Then there's the aquarium Nemo finds himself in, filled with starfish and other aquarium life resigned to their fate. Resigned,
that is, until they hear Nemo's tale.

Pixar has always focused on the camaraderie of "people" banding together for a common cause, a great theme for any movie. This is in stark contrast to Hollywood's blockbuster mentality where the star has to be the focal point. Pixar's approach is much more organic, much more interested in characters and how they work together. And what characters they create--a temperamental blowfish, a fish who believes that the reflection in the tank is her twin sister, and a school of fish that does imitations.

Even the parts that don't sound as if they'd work on the page sparkle on the screen. A 100+-year-old turtle that talks like a surfer ("Du-uuuude!") is marvelous, and Dory's short-term amnesia is used beautifully. Just when you think she's going to become annoying, the movie tweaks her condition so that it fits into the story. And Ellen DeGeneres's line readings are so razor-sharp that even the most obvious joke is still wickedly funny.

Indeed this is the crucial difference between Nemo and almost every other comedy of the last year--the sharpness of the writing and editing. Recalling the great Chuck Jones cartoons, Nemo doesn't mug for the audience or put an exclamation point on every joke. Many of the gags are amazingly subtle, and even the broader laughs for the kiddies have a twist that will please the older ones. Early in the film, when Nemo disobeys his dad and swims to open water, he intentionally touches the bottom of a boat. But his classmates don't know what a boat is and call it a butt instead. "He touched the butt," they murmur in wonder. Well, that line is going to go over big with the seven-year-old set, but every adult will be laughing at Nemo's amazing facial expression of child-like defiance. Indeed the Pixar animators have done it again. Their absolute devotion to the perfect facial expression pays off again and again.

The animation is yet another quantum leap for the Pixar folk. Returning to the nature motif of A Bug's Life, they're able to utilize nature's wide palette of color. Yet, they deploy that color with such exquisite beauty. Often breathtaking without ever being gaudy, Nemo might be one of the most beautiful movies of the last decade. And the animation of the sea environment is marvelous. After a while, I forgot I was watching a movie and simply imagined that I had been transported into the sea. The way the fish move through the water is exactly right. Even the swaying of the anemone feels like you're watching a nature documentary instead of an animated flick. But nature documentaries are never this entertaining. The score by Thomas Newman and the terrific sound design by Gary Rydstrom are understated without ever losing their effectiveness.

My only caveat for parents is that there are a couple intense chase sequences (the sharks fall off the wagon when they catch the scent of blood), so those with four- and five-year-olds might need to consider what their child can handle. On the other hand, don't let your lack of children or grandchildren stop you. Finding Nemo is genuine family entertainment, fulfilling the oft-said but rarely-fulfilled claim to being thoroughly
enjoyable for all ages. 

J. Robert Parks 5/26/2003

The technical magicians at Pixar are back with the new animated film _Finding Nemo_ that tells the story of a loving but overprotective Clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks), as he ventures out into the deep ocean to save his son Nemo (Alexander Gould), who has been taken from his home by divers.

The loss of Nemo is devastating to Marlin as he lost his wife and all of their eggs save for Nemo and has become very timid in the time since and he fears venturing beyond the safe confines of his home area.

Driven by the love for his son, Marlin sets out to follow the boat that has taken his son, even though it takes him deep into the dangerous Ocean and forces him to confront his own fears to save his son. Along the way Marlin encounters Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a sweet but very absent-minded fish who tags along with Marlin to provide comedy relief for the story.

There is also a very good side story involving Nemo and a group of fish in a tank as they bond and try to formulate the grand escape to freedom and return Nemo to his father.

What follows is a very funny and charming story as the two fish encounter everything from sharks in a 12 Step program trying to change their image to a migration of surfer dude turtles. Of course there are dangers along the way and parents should be cautioned that some scenes did cause tears from some of the very young viewers in the screener that I attended.

While the plot is not the most complex story in the world, it is more than appropriate for the target audience of the film and there are more than enough laughs and smiles in the film to keep even the most jaded adult tuned in. The computer artistry is amazing as it is awash in motion, textures, and colors without being to frantic and providing an array of amazing visuals. I was very impressed at how each creature had detailed facial expressions that carried their emotions without having to rely heavily on the dialogue to convey feelings. In summary, Finding Nemo is an absolutely charming film and a true family classic that should not be missed. The film is easily the best work ever from Pixar, and that is saying something with their very impressive resume.

Gareth Von Kallenbach 6/7/2003


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