The first thing that strikes a viewer of this marvellous film from Pixar (Toy Story, 1995, Monsters, Inc., 2001) is the sense of wonder it instantly creates.
Before the characters are introduced, before the story kicks in, there is the sea – brought alive in a mixture of pure fancy and hyper-real detail.
Of course, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphised ocean world we are introduced to, via the anxious clown fish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and his wife Coral. But, to counter the early signs of excessive cuteness, the film quickly introduces one of its several dark, indeed horrific notes: a catastrophe that leaves, from the brood, only little Nemo (Alexander Gould) in the anemone.
As he grows up, Nemo wants to explore, while Marlin is understandably fearful and over-protective. When Nemo is scooped up by a diver whose destination is Sydney (all the Australiana details are immensely enjoyable), Marlin has to find his inner courage. But the desolate Nemo, stuck in a fish tank with a gang led by the surly Gill (Willem Dafoe), doubts whether his father will ever come after him.
Animation has one big advantage over live-action feature filmmaking in the contemporary climate: the script has to be completely finished and perfectly nailed down before production can begin. Finding Nemo is a model of crafty screenwriting. The way it alternates between the twin adventures of Nemo in the tank and Marlin with his companion, the amnesiac Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), is elegant and satisfying at every point.
Director Andrew Stanton (who also provides the voice for the splendid sea turtle, Crush) and his collaborators know that this tale also needs an authentic theme, not just an extravagant journey. They find it in the topic of family and home – and what can exactly constitute these things in a huge, chaotic, dangerous world.
By the time Dory said to Marlin, "When I look at you, I'm home", Finding Nemo had completely won me over on this score.
This is a perfect film on every level. The comedy is pitched simultaneously to both children and adults, with a dexterous split between the immediacy of the imagery and the screwball subtlety of the dialogue. Vignettes such as the trio of sharks (led by Barry Humphries' Bruce) who want to overcome, in New Age style, their need to eat fish, or the dash by Marlin and Dory to avoid a swarm of stingrays, fill out the storyline in a colourful, exciting way.
The team of talents behind Pixar have achieved a position that must be the envy of every practitioner who toils in the treacherous fields of pop culture. They have nurtured a mass audience which is not only familiar with their style sensibility, but willing to enjoy even their most personal and eccentric touches (like the end credits of this movie).
Right in the midst of saturation marketing, toy franchising, storytelling formulae and assembly-line production, Finding Nemo is that very special and most touching thing: a shameless commodity that, none the less, moves and thrills us to the core.
© Adrian Martin August 2003