finding nemo (2003)


director: andrew stanton

voices of: albert brooks, ellen degeneres, willem dafoe

The marvel of Pixar Studios is the way each film outstrips the last, at least technically, and Finding Nemo, the studio’s latest, is no exception. Setting a whole feature cartoon underwater poses some impressive challenges, and while there’s no doubt that director Andrew Stanton and his enormous crew of animators have delivered, the film’s script relies on less innovative devices, known to anyone familiar with the history of Disney and Pixar.

Nemo, voiced by nine-year old Alexander Gould, is a little clown fish, only vaguely handicapped by a withered fin, a disability he doesn’t take nearly as seriously as Marlin, his wildly overprotective father, voiced to neurotic perfection by Albert Brooks. The story of how Marlin became a single father is contained in the film’s first five minutes, a terrifying sequence that recalls the fates of Bambi and Dumbo’s ill-starred mothers, a stock Disney tradition that’s no less frightening for children now than fifty years ago.

After this sad introduction, the rest of the film is up to Pixar’s achingly clever, visually stunning standards. Nemo is captured by a diver, and his father sets out for Sydney to rescue his son, in the company of Dory, a dimwitted fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. Menacing Nemo in the aquarium of a fish-mad dentist is Darla, a knock-off of the grotesque, destructive nightmare child from the Toy Story films, while back in the ocean, Marlin and Dory are menaced by a trio of sharks pledged to an AA-style recovery program, eager to change their image as mindless eating machines.

The sharks are the sort of witty, knowing touch that has made Pixar films popular with even childless adults, and Finding Nemo is full of such touches, but for kids as well as adults, the film really impresses with its spectacular digital animation, rendered with the sort of depth and detail that was once solely the province of painstaking, hand-drawn cel animation. It’s not just the character animation on Brooks and DeGeneres’ cartoon avatars, but the lovely aquatic imagery, on Nemo’s reef home and in the wild open ocean.

Aside from the impact the film will have on tropical fish sales, Finding Nemo has set the benchmark a bit higher, endowing digital animation with a whole new palate of murky shadow and liquid motion. As long as Pixar can still create scripts full of sly humour to offset the bathos and menace that even the best children’s films rely on, they’ll remain the standard by which all others are judged.