Finding Nemo Review
Read an alternative review by Michael Mackenzie (Region 1 DVD)
Pixar's latest computer animated feature film, Finding Nemo opens on a surprisingly dark note. In its first five minutes, Marlin, a nerdy clownfish voiced by Albert Brooks loses his beloved wife and all but one of their eggs to a barracuda. It's a shocking and sad moment but, like the death of Bambi's mother or Simba's father in The Lion King, it allows Finding Nemo an emotional resonance beyond that of most live action films, let alone animated ones. Don't misunderstand, this is not a dark or depressing movie by any means - it's bright and sunny and boasts more laughs than just about any comedy you'll see this year and more thrills than any recent action blockbuster. However, it also has a satisfying depth to it. It's about the bond between father and son, the importance of facing life no matter what it has in store and the need to put your trust in others. When it's over you'll be surprised how much the fate of a couple of fish affected you.
When we catch up with Marlin again, years after the tragedy, he's become a fanatically overprotective father who hates to leave home and is reluctant to allow his surviving son Nemo out of his sight even to go to school. When he's finally talked into it, he embarasses the kid in front of his new friends and inadvertently spurs him into accepting a silly dare which leads to Nemo being caught in a diver's net. Marlin is devastated but his love for his son overrides his instinct to give up and run away. The little clownfish resolves to face his fear of the outside ocean and find his son wherever he is... which happens to be in an aquarium in a dentist's office overlooking Sydney Harbour. Before he can rescue Nemo, Marlin will have to embark on a long and dangerous odyssey and overcome sharks, landmines, hideous deep sea angler fish, jellyfish, breakneck currents, giant whales, hungry seabirds and the dubious help of a flaky blue fish called Dory (Ellen DeGeneres).
Since Robin Williams' groundbreaking work in Aladdin, it's become common to see Hollywood stars providing voice talent for animated films. Some undoubtedly bring something extra to the material, like Mike Myers in Shrek. Others seem to be there for their marquee value alone, such as Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones in Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas. For Finding Nemo, Pixar have steered clear of major stars and instead cast well-known character actors in roles which suit them perfectly. Casting Albert Brooks was a stroke of genius. Best known for Broadcast News, Brooks is a talent rarely tapped by Hollywood and he's survived by writing and directing his own vehicles, among them Lost In America and Defending Your Life. He's ideal as the nervy Marlin - no one plays anxiety better than Brooks and no one plays it funnier. Like Woody Allen in Antz, Billy Crystal in Monsters Inc and Eddie Murphy in Shrek, Brooks' collaboration with the animators has produced his best work in years.
Equally as good is Ellen DeGeneres, who creates a truly endearing character in Dory, a fish with an attitude as positive as her attention span is short. Investing the pair with great comic chemistry and real feeling, Brooks and DeGeneres make Marlin and Dory as lovable a team as Woody and Buzz from Toy Story. Another standout is Willem Dafoe who plays Gill, a tough but good-natured angel fish who dreams of escaping the dentist's tank and takes new "inmate" Nemo under his wing. Oddly enough, Dafoe played more or less the same role in the recent prison drama Animal Factory. Given the Australian setting, it's only fair that the voice cast also contains some Aussie talent so we get Geoffrey Rush as a helpful pelican and Barry Humphries, Eric Bana and Bruce Spence (aka Dame Edna, the Hulk and the Gyro Captain!) as a trio of very peculiar sharks.
By now it should go without saying that a Pixar film is visually dazzling, yet with each new project they push the envelope further. Finding Nemo is sublimely beautiful to look at. Directors Lee Unkrich (Monsters Inc) and Andrew Stanton (A Bug's Life) have created an amazingly vivid and varied undersea environment which takes in brightly coloured coral reefs, gloomy shipwrecks, eerie swarms of jellyfish and the darkness of the deep. However it's their work on the world above the ocean's surface that impresses the most. There are landscapes that look so real, you could probably insert them into a live action film without the audience being any the wiser. The visuals aren't just background decoration. A sequence where Marlin and Dory ride across Sydney Harbour in a pelican's bill while being chased by a flock of seabirds trumps even The Matrix Reloaded's freeway chase for eye-popping action.
It was a kick to see Disney's aquatic double whammy of Finding Nemo and Pirates Of The Caribbean outgrossing all of the big sequels at the US box office this summer and hopefully it sent a message to the studios that audiences want to be surprised and entertained, not browbeaten into seeing the same movie over and over. Pirates was good fun but Finding Nemo's winning combination of visual spectacle and witty, heartfelt storytelling makes it far and away the best of summer 2003's offerings. It's also the best Pixar movie yet. Could there be any better recommendation?
* Finding Nemo plays with an amusing short film Pixar made in 1989 called Knickknack.
* For once there are no "outtakes" at the end (a running joke that was starting to get stale!) but there are a few subtler-than-usual in-jokes and a post-credits treat if you stick around.