The skating’s fine but the storytelling wobbly in the first half of “Finding Nemo,” Disney on Ice’s live version of the 2003 Mouse House/Pixar animated feature. After intermission things go much more swimmingly, though the typical target audience member — who has probably watched the film on video enough times to drive mom and dad crazy — will no doubt be happy just recognizing familiar dialogue and characters throughout. In fact, a 4-year-old in this critic’s company who had hither to miraculously avoided exposure to all things “Nemo” was entranced even without benefit of that deja vu factor.
“Nemo” might seem ideal for the arena ice-spectacular format; after all, gliding and billowing are things flora and fauna do well on water as well as under it. But an overlong first act, stretched out by too many shapeless production numbers, reveals the tale’s odyssey structure as a less-than-solid narrative frame for this different format.
Trailing clownfish dad Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks, skated by Joseph Doud) and his dizzy Regal Tang pal Dory (Ellen DeGeneres/Rebecca Hovda) as they swim into strange waters to rescue the former’s son, Nemo (Alexander Gould/Tamarah Hooper), from a diver’s Sydney office aquarium, the first half too often seems a hectic, shapeless clutter of noise and movement. That’s partly due to the episodic nature of the story, in which only the principal characters stick around longer than a scene or two. But it’s also a testament to the lack of a unifying directorial and stylistic package.
Things improve after intermission, when the suspense and emotional pull of Nemo’s impending parental reunion come into sharper focus. This shorter act also features the show’s loveliest, most balletic sequence (Cindy Stuart is the choreographer), as pink stinging jellyfish billow from both catwalks above (including acrobatic aerial-silk-rope soloist Nicole Fron) and poles held by skater-dancers.
Other notable — if variable — stabs at spectacle include a life-size, 43-foot-long sculptural blue whale, a Rockettes-style angelfish interlude, a mock-ceremonial tiki dance and periodic rear-screen projections on a screen rather small for arena venues.
These individual diversions are hit-and-miss, but they benefit from Scott Lane’s DayGlo-colorful costumes, which preserve the film’s witty take on underwater species’ personalities. The one problem is that he’s designed the lead character bodies to extend perpendicular to and through the performers’ midsections, a weird effect. For a while, grownups might be forgiven for thinking the skaters (whose legs below, arms and faces above remain visible) appear burdened with enormous, grotesque cleavage.
Most if not all dialogue seems to have been taken directly from the film’s soundtrack, with most notable exception being some new material by DeGeneres and Brooks announcing (and explaining the concept of) intermission.
The show also tosses in a glut of briefly excerpted tunes, including “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Purple Haze” (!) and even “The Mickey Mouse Club Theme,” while silly original song “The Turtle Rock” sounds like something Annette Funicello might have recorded back in the day. But that grab-bag is unimaginatively programmed and generically produced, and lacks the cohesion all-new songs would have. (Thomas Newman’s original film score provides backdrop elsewhere.) Instead of turning “Nemo” into a musical, it just turns it into a pantomime with a work-in-progress mix tape.
Nonetheless, the source material’s warmth and humor ultimately carry the day. While kids are likely to emerge the more pleased by far, parents dragged along will be reminded that “Nemo’s” ultimate lesson — about letting children experiment and make mistakes on their own, rather than overprotecting them from formative experiences — is, in fact, for them.