Finding Nemo (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As we enter the summer of 2003, Walt Disney Pictures reigns supreme as the distributor of the best animated fare. Yet, less than a dozen years after Beauty and the Beast became the first (and thus far only) animated film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Disney's in-house animated division has degraded to the point where it's a pale shadow of its former self. However, by acquiring the exclusive North American distribution rights for the films of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki and by entering into a partnership with Pixar Films, Disney has managed to maintain its position atop the mountain, despite furious challenges from Dreamworks and Fox. Without either of those deals – especially the Pixar one – Disney's once unassailable position might have been lost.

The movies of the Pixar canon – Toy Story and its sequel, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc. – have all been critical and box office successes. There is no reason to believe things will change with Finding Nemo. Visually, the film is just as jaw-dropping as its predecessors (if not more so). From a narrative standpoint, it's not quite as ambitious as some of the earlier movies, but it has enough juice to keep things moving for 100 minutes. And, as always, the voice casting is perfect. Throw in a moral, and some nice touches of technical accuracy (that fish keepers will appreciate), and the movie represents the best family film to-date of 2003.

Finding Nemo takes viewers on an offbeat road trip, as an overprotective clownfish father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), teams up with a forgetful hippo tang, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), to find Marlin's lost son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). While testing his boundaries and defying his father, Nemo wanders too close to a human scuba diving expedition and becomes an aquarium specimen. Now, he spends his days as a captive in a salt water tank with several other inhabitants, including a royal gramma, a starfish, a puffer, and a butterfly fish, Gill (Willem Dafoe), whose lone goal is escape. Meanwhile, Marlin and Dory brave the dangers of the open seas – including a trio of would-be vegetarian sharks, a forest of jellyfish, and the belly of a whale – on their way to Australia, where Nemo is being held captive.

Pixar films always contain thematic content, and this one is no different. It touches on the issues of how a parent's natural protective instincts can drive away a child, and how children, no matter how desperately they crave independence, still need their families. None of this is presented in a heavy-handed manner. Instead, it's offered in such a way that even the younger members of the audience will understand what the film is saying without feeling like they're being subjected to a sermon. There's also a message about the importance of diversity and harmony, as a wide variety of animal species band together to help Marlin as he searches for his lost son.

Finding Nemo is every bit as humorous as Monsters Inc., although some of the comedy is more low-key. Having experienced comedians like Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres as the lead voices helps immeasurably. Brooks, as is his forte, makes Marlin sound constantly beleaguered. DeGeneres is a hoot as the tang with no short term memory. Willem Defoe brings an initial whiff of the sinister to his part as Nemo's older, larger tankmate. Other voices include Alison Janney, Austin Pendleton, and Geoffrey Rush as a helpful pelican.

Director Andrew Stanton has opted to animate some of the fish realistically, while using artistic license with others. The clownfish and hippo tang, for example, look almost identical to their real-life counterparts. The sea horses and turtles, however, have some of their rough edges smoothed out, making them cuter and more child-friendly. Overall, Finding Nemo is a treasure trove of visual splendor. From the opening scenes on the coral reef with Marlin taking up residence in his new anemone to the cheesy insides of Nemo's aquarium cage, the film is colorful and amazingly detailed. Every time I view a Pixar film, I am stunned at how much there is to see. Finding Nemo proves that the computer animators can do as much under water as above it.

For longtime fans of Disney animated movies, there are a few nods to past efforts. The death of Nemo's mother, which occurs early in the film (and is offscreen - no blood or overt violence to speak of) recalls a similar event from the classic Bambi. Likewise, a scene in which Marlin and Dory spend some time in the stomach of a whale will remind viewers of Pinocchio. And there's a throw in reference to Toy Story - in this case, a quick shot of a Buzz Lightyear doll.

I wonder if Finding Nemo will fuel an upsurge in interest in salt water aquariums. To be sure, clowns are interesting fish to keep, but only for those with a little patience. Children expecting their pets to exhibit the characteristics of Marlin and Nemo will likely be disappointed. Nevertheless, ecological considerations aside, there's nothing to gripe about where Finding Nemo is concerned. Pixar has done it again, and, in the process, managed to salvage Disney's reputation – at least for a little longer.

Finding Nemo (United States, 2003)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2003-05-30
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1