The Pixar supporting team steps up in snappy fashion in “Finding Nemo,” a buoyant adventure that entertainingly continues the Disney/Pixar winning streak. Notable first and foremost for its spectacularly colorful underwater setting, which gives the picture one of the most striking visual backdrops ever seen in an animated film, this adventure tale of a neurotic clown fish’s search for his errant son zips along swimmingly with cheeky comic flair. Pic may not quite match the “Toy Story” duo or “Monsters, Inc.” artistically or commercially, but will nevertheless make a very large splash at the summer box office.
With John Lasseter overseeing the production as exec producer, “Nemo” marks the full directorial debut of Andrew Stanton, co-director of Lasseter’s “A Bug’s Life” and a writer on all four previous Pixar features. Lee Unkrich is on board as a co-director for the third time, after “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters,” while “Toy 2” production manager Graham Walters makes his producing debut. All this promotion through the ranks provides a reassuring sense of continuity with previous Pixar outings, with the greatest difference in feel this time stemming from the invigorating combination of Yank and Aussie vocal talents in roughly equal numbers.
With his 400-odd brothers and sisters gobbled up along with his mother, Nemo (cheerfully voiced by Alexander Gould) is the only son of Marlin (Albert Brooks), an overprotective dad who would keep his boy on leash if he could. All a-tremble taking Nemo to his first day of school, Marlin goes into full panic when Nemo, accused of being a bad swimmer by his dad, leaves the neighborhood reef to check out a boat floating on the far-off surface. For once, Marlin’s anxiety is justified, as a diver (seen scarily from a tiny fish’s p.o.v.) nets Nemo and takes him aboard.
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In frantic pursuit, Marlin is joined by Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), an absentminded but relentlessly upbeat blue tang who provides the swimming bundle of nerves with a much-needed one-fish support system. Early in their journey, they meet a toothsome Great White named Bruce (a most amusing Barry Humphries), a self-professed “good shark” who’s desperately trying to reform himself. “It’s been three weeks since my last fish,” he announces, as pals Anchor (Eric Bana), a hammerhead, and Chum (Bruce Spence), a mako, rather reluctantly try to follow suit. Their basic instincts get the better of them at the first whiff of blood, however, setting in motion a spectacular chase around a sunken submarine and an old minefield.
Film’s early stages are exceptional for their beauty. Computer animators have long discussed the knotty challenge posed by representing water in their medium, and the Pixar team spent years researching and developing solutions to the problems. The work has paid off in glorious images that represent the ocean in varying degrees of darkness and light, stillness and turbulence, clarity and obscurity, and in ways that highlight the myriad colors possessed by underwater life.
Up top, Nemo has found a new home in a Sydney dentist’s office aquarium. His fellow “outies” from the sea are a welcoming bunch dominated by moorish idol Gill (Willem Dafoe), whose heavy scars testify to numerous run-ins with humankind. As affable as all these captives may be, escape is a constant preoccupation, especially since the dentist’s frightful niece is due to collect Nemo within a few days. A known fish-killer, little Darla is evil enough to be introduced by the “Psycho” shriek of strings.
So it becomes a race against time, as Marlin and Dory make their way toward Sydney Harbor in the desperate hope of finding a way to rescue the errant clown fish, and Nemo’s new friends try to arrange for his escape before he gets taken away in a clear plastic sack.
Aiding the cause underwater is sea turtle, Crush (helmer Stanton), a 150-year-old surfer dude with the spirit of a teenager who cruises the East Australian Current for a thrill ride. A particularly striking sequence has Marlin and Dory swept into the mouth of a blue whale (pointedly not anthropomorphized) and stranded for a perilous period of time on its tongue. Animators have invested this episode with a welcome realism — such a predicament is unlikely to ever be captured on live-action film.
Lending a hand, or at least a large mouth, up top is an accident-prone pelican, Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), who schemes with the aquarium dwellers and is no friend to the harbor seagulls, which are portrayed in a very bad light indeed. Perhaps the film’s best sight gag has a bunch of airborne gulls chase Nigel, who, in approaching the mast of a sailboat, suddenly tilts at an angle to squeeze through a narrow opening, stranding the hapless gulls right behind him with their beaks poking through the large sail.
Breathless climax involves a detailed knowledge of the Sydney sewage system, as well as a nifty and visually imposing suspense sequence in which the protag becomes tangled up with hundreds of doomed fish in a huge trawling net.
Although the action and dialogue remain fast and witty, pic doesn’t skim effortlessly across the surface all the time. A little of Marlin’s fin-wringing goes a long way, his yuppie-like overconcern becoming quickly tiresome even though it drives the plot. For her part, Dory is awfully chatty, and a slight reduction in time spent with these two wouldn’t have been missed. On the other hand, story lacks a particularly prominent villain, which has always been something that juices up elementary adventure tales. Always amusing, pic rarely approaches the laughter and outright ingenuity levels of the “Toy Story” pics and “Monsters, Inc.”
But “Nemo” is still very clever and imaginative indeed, and its pictures are so gorgeous that they alone could warrant a second viewing. Setting in Australia and vicinity lends the proceedings a distinctive new flavor, voicings are spirited across the board, and Thomas Newman’s large score is perked up by some unusual orchestration ideas.