Finding Nemo Review
I have a confession to make: 3D animation does not appeal to me. The design and animation of Shrek struck me as thoroughly repulsive, and the gratuitous CG backgrounds and effects shots in Treasure Planet annoyed me something rotten. I am very much a fan of traditional (2D) animation, and I am always somewhat hostile to 3D animated films, viewing them (probably a little unfairly) as something of an "enemy". There is one exception to this rule, and that is Pixar. As a studio, Pixar has already released four consecutive masterpieces: Toy Story (1995), A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999) and Monsters, Inc. (2001). Finding Nemo is the latest in this long line of successes, taking away The Lion King's crown of most successful animated feature of all time. The question is, does it live up to the hype surrounding it, or is it simply riding on the coat tails of Pixar's past successes?
Finding Nemo tells the story of Marlin, an orange clownfish and single parent to his only son, Nemo. Marlin lost his wife and the rest of his children during a shark attack, and as a result has become over-protective of his surviving offspring. Resenting his father's tight control, Nemo runs off and in the process is abducted by a scuba diver. The normally timid Marlin sets out to rescue Nemo, who is now trapped in a fish tank in a dentist's office. Along the way, Marlin runs into Dory, a fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. Fun and frolics ensue as they head off on an adventure to find Nemo.
This probably all sounds very familiar by now. This is the fourth out of five Pixar films to take on a "buddy picture" guise (A Bug's Life deviated slightly from this). While this might seem like a problem, nothing could be further from the truth, as Finding Nemo is so masterfully told in every way that it brings a huge number of new twists to the formula. The most apparent of these is the afforementioned short-term memory loss that Dory suffers from. Basically, Dory forgets the simplest of things, which leads to all sorts of problems throughout the movie. While this might sound annoying, in reality it works very well by adding a continual obstacle that must be overcome.
All the characters in Nemo has some sort of fatal flaw. Marlin is over-protective and timid, Dory has memory problems, and Nemo has a weak fin that gives him problems with swimming. They all must confront their problems at some point and overcome them. The message of the film seems to be that nobody is perfect and that anyone can accomplish their goals if they really try, which might sound a bit schmalzy, but the film never beats you over the head with its morals.
Finding Nemo is structured in a manner similar to Toy Story 2, in that rather than continually following one character, it darts back and forth. There are really two main plots going on at once: Marlin and Dory's journey to rescue Nemo, and Nemo's attempts to escape from the fish tank (what, you didn't think he'd just sit and wait for them, did you?). The cutting between narratives is never clumsy, and I never found myself getting bored of one and wishing for a return to the other, something that I felt was a problem with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a film which utilises similar storytelling techniques.
Of course, I couldn't go far in this review without mentioning the visuals. They have been subject to a lot of praise and interest, and the real reason is not the fact that they are 3D but the fact that they are done incredibly well. The designs of the main character of Marlin, Dory and Nemo are simplistic yet appealing, but it is in the secondary characters that the real design flare makes its presence. From the ridiculous-looking pelicans to the Feathers McGraw (of Wallace & Gromit fame) inspired seagulls to the colossal sharks with hundreds of teeth, all the characters are imaginatively designed and none of them feel out of place, unlike, for example, Shrek, where the visual style was inconsistent and felt like its designs had been culled from several different sources.
A good two-thirds of the film takes place underwater, and even the least technically literate viewer probably has some idea of the problems involved with the creation of computer-generated water and fauna. Thankfully, Pixar have managed to overcome any techinical obstacles and create a wonderful-looking, living, breathing world. The entire screen is always full of life, and the attention to detail is quite jaw-dropping in places. The realism of the backgrounds never clashes with the exaggerated, cartoony look of the characters. Before I saw the film, I was a little concerned that a never-ending underwater wilderness might become dull and repetitive after a while. I need not have worried: in Finding Nemo, the underwater locations work due to their sheer magnitude and depth, with the seemingly endless ocean creating an air of mystery and suspense. The varied look of the film's locations, a superb feat by production designer Ralph Eggleston, creates a stunningly varied and attractive world. Adding to the atmosphere is a haunting score by Thomas Newman, the same man responsible for the music of American Beauty.
So, does Finding Nemo have any flaws? Well, to be honest, no. At least, none that are readily apparent, even after a number of viewings. If I was pressed to mention something, I would probably say that Dory's sudden deus ex machina recovery of a key memory near the end of the film doesn't feel completely satisfying, but there is so much else going on that is absolutely superb that I am willing to forgive this. I will concede that the film doesn't break very much new ground. This is a tried and trusted formula, but Finding Nemo does it well enough for this not to be much of an issue.
Like the excellent Toy Story, Finding Nemo transcends its boundaries and so far is easily my favourite film of 2003. Its success is well-deserved, and though I am not one for blind worship of a company, this is Pixar's fifth masterpiece in a row, making it clear that these guys know what they are doing and can be trusted to produce a quality movie (and a box office hit) each time. Roll on The Incredibles!
On Disc 1, Finding Nemo is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, close enough to the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. On Disc 2, a reframed non-anamorphic 1.33:1 version is included, and although it was created under the supervision of the director, the widescreen version is definitely the one to watch.
In the past, I have been rather critical of direct digital transfers. In my opinion, they create an unavoidable sterile and "unfilmlike" look, due to the fact that the image has no grain or telecine wobble to add life to it. In particular, I felt that the transfers for A Bug's Life and the original Toy Story were very lifeless, despite being impossible to fault on a technical level. The transfer of Finding Nemo is the first time that this has not been an issue for me, since the screen is always so full of life, be it rippling water or flashing patterns of light, the its digital origins never draw attention to themselves. Because of the nature of a film set mostly underwater, the image has a rather soft look but is still able to show plenty of detail. The colours are superb and the contrast and brightness levels spot on.
Unfortunately, the encoding of both the widescreen and fullscreen versions leaves a little to be desired. While not awful, there is quite a lot of mosquito noise around the characters' outlines. The problem most likely stems from the fact that both discs have quite a lot of extras on them, starving the space available for the film itself. While I know that a lot of people have not noticed any problems, they are as clear as day to me, even on the 21" TV beside my computer. On both my computer screen and my 38" widescreen TV the mosquito noise, and some macro-blocking in the backgrounds, are quite pronounced. In some scenes these problems are barely noticeable, whereas in others they become visible to the extent of being distracting. They are at their worst during the scene where Marlin and Dory hitch a ride with some giant sea turtles on the East Australian Current.
There is also some very mild edge enhancement, although you'll be hard-pressed to spot it unless you are actively looking for it.
Your mileage is certainly going to vary with this release, since I know that some people are more sensitive to digital compression problems than others. This transfer certainly does not come even close to the technical perfection of Pixar's previous DVD releases. In many ways it is typical of Disney's recent DVD transfers, as I noticed similar problems on both Treasure Planet (which crammed enough extras for two DVDs on to a single disc) and to a lesser extent The Lion King.
Update (12 March 2004): With my newly purchased Pioneer DV-668AV player, I was able to aleviate some of the encoding problems with heavy noise reduction. However, I do not expect to have to turn on noise reduction at all on a premium title like this, and I certainly do not expect to have to pay £400 to get something approaching decent image image quality.
Finding Nemo is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX. The reframed 1.33:1 version also includes French and Spanish audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX.
Those expecting a full-on split channel effects showcase may be disappointed. Finding Nemo's mix is a lot more subtle than Pixar's previous releases, especially the two Toy Stories. As a result, the sound mix is extremely believable and enveloping, but doesn't draw attention to itself too often. The bass is very good and the dialogue is always crisp and clear, and although no DTS mix is included, I don't really feel that the mix presented here could have been improved on to any significant extent.
Quite a lot of effort was evidently put into the creation of these menus, with ornate transitions and background animation. The original voices of the characters even prompt you to make selections from time to time, which becomes a bit annoying after a while. Sadly, the menus have been quite heavily compressed, and while I'm glad they did this rather than compromising the film's available bit rate even further, it does look slightly unprofessional.
On Disc 1, the menus are in anamorphic widescreen, while on Disc 2, they are in fullscreen.
The two discs are housed inside a dual-amaray case with an outer cardboard sleeve. The artwork is very nicely done, and I especially like the shiny texture given to the cardboard sleeve, mimicking the effect of light reflecting underwater. A small booklet is included inside featuring chapter stops, information on the extras, a branching tree identifying where each feature is located (similar to what was used for the Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring and the Platinum Edition of The Lion King), and some character designs. Overall a very polished effort.
The extras are spread across both discs, with the first disc housing the more intelligent materials and the second disc being devoted to what is mainly material oriented at very small children. You won't want to completely ignore the second disc, though, as there are a couple of nice features on it as well.
Annoyingly, all the extras on Disc 1 are presented in anamorphic widescreen, which is a shame because most of them are in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, meaning that they are windowboxed. Even material that is meant to be seen in widescreen (i.e. clips from the film and production progression demonstrations) is windowboxed, meaning that viewers with 16x9 equipment are forced to either view these clips in a tiny window or zoom in their displays.
Visual commentary - Director Andrew Stanton, co-director Lee Unkrich and co-writer Bob Peterson provide a lively, funny and informative commentary, discussing various aspects of production, ranging from story problems to casting decisions to technical problems that had to be solved. This is a "visual commentary", something that Disney has used a lot recently. Basically, it means that at certain points, additional material is shown via seamless branching. In all, this adds around 30 minutes to the running time, and although the featurettes that are played are generally very interesting, it is a shame that an option to play the commentary without the additional footage, something that Disney allowed with their collector's edition release of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, was not included.
The commentary ends with a dedication to Glenn McQueen, a supervising animator at Pixar and the man who was in charge of bringing Woody to life in the Toy Story films. He died of cancer in October last year at the age of 42.
One thing that should be noted is that many of the featurettes presented in the visual commentary take the place of lengthier and more thorough materials provided on previous Pixar DVD releases, such as production progression demonstrations. Additionally, all of Pixar's previous releases have included an option to view the entire film with sound effects only in 5.1 surround (a great demonstration of Gary Rydstrom's effective mixing), but on this DVD only a short 30-second clip in stereo is provided.
Virtual aquariums - This admittedly cool but ultimately pointless feature allows you to remove the on-screen text from a number of the menus and view the background art on its own. Nice, but the DVD does not significantly benefit from its inclusion.
Making Nemo documentary - This is a reasonably informative and interesting look at the creation of the film. Running at slightly over 25 minutes, it touches on all major aspects of the production. This is a decent overview, but in my opinion no substitute for the multiple featurettes and production progressions presented on Pixar's previous DVDs.
Design galleries - This is a nice collection of concepts artwork and 3D model turnarounds of the characters and locations depicted in the movie. An interesting feature presented here is the "Art Review", an interesting 8-minute look at some of the movie's concept art, narrated by some of the production team. I am a little disappointed that the galleries are a lot less extensive than usual, especially the character design galleries. That said, over 300 "color script" stills are included. These are production designer Ralph Eggleston's highly atmospheric chalk pastel design concepts, illustrating key locations and moments from the film.
Exploring the Reef - This 7-minute documentary is hosted by Jean-Michel Cousteau and comes across as an attempt to get children interested in nature shows. Various characters from the movie find their way into the documentary, interacting with the narrator.
Knick Knack - Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and running for just under 4 minutes, this is one of the last shorts Pixar made prior to the creation of Toy Story. It's a great little tale, featuring a snowman in a snowdome trying to get out so he can be with a busty blonde... Or at least, she would be busty if someone hadn't decided to go all revisionist on us and make her as flat as a pancake. I guess the idea of a woman with breasts was too much for Disney.
The short can be played either with or without commentary by director John Lasseter and technical director Eben Ostby.
"The Incredibles" preview - A preview for Pixar's next project, an epic movie featuring a family of former superheroes who are again called on to save the world. It looks pretty cool, and the director is Brad Bird (director of The Iron Giant), so I have high hopes for this one. Presented in atmoshperic anamorphic 2.35:1.
"Fisharades" game - Disney are notorious for including these little interactive games. Generally, they are fun for about three minutes, and this is no exception. Here, parts of various shapes are presented and you have to guess what they are by clicking on the corresponding icon.
Mr. Ray's Encyclopedia - Narrated by Mr. Ray, one of the characters in the movie, this is a collection of information about the various fish in the game. The shortness of the individual segments on each fish means that you don't really gain much information, but I suppose it presents some little snippets in a way that are easily digestible for kids. This is the problem I have with Disney's DVDs: they always seem to feel the need to include something that is quasi-educational, and in my opinion it is generally a waste of space.
Storytime - This is a little interactive storybook, narrated by a woman with a very annoying voice, but I must admit it has a very nice graphical style.
Character interviews - A 2:25 interview with Marlin, Dory and Nemo. Again, probably great for the kids, but completely laughable for anyone over a certain age. I should probably point out that Marlin is voiced by someone doing a very bad imitation of Albert Brooks. As far as I can tell, Dory and Nemo have their correct voices.
Studio tour - This is a very quick look at the production process, hosted by the voice of Nemo, Alexander Gould (a particularly annoying little boy). While it is admittedly pretty funny at times, thanks to its over-the-top delivery, this is very much one for children only.
Publicity - The teaser trailer, three theatrical trailers, a print gallery featuring various theatrical posters, and featurettes themed around three characters from the movie are included.
Overall, the special features included are mostly good, but it is disappointing that, by attempting to appeal to both adults and children, the end result is somewhat watered down. The recent Platinum Release of The Lion King, in my opinion, was ruined by the fact that the vast majority of the extras were either pointless children's games or too short, and while the same is not true of Finding Nemo, I do feel that there are parallels, and that it would have been a better idea to release two separate versions (as was done with Monsters Inc. in the UK), rather than short-changing the serious enthusiasts among us. What is included here is still better than many other so-called "special edition" DVDs, but it is not as good as what I have come to expect from Pixar.
Finding Nemo is a superb movie and one that, in my opinion, everyone should see. Although the DVD presentation is not as stunning as Pixar's previous efforts, it is still very good indeed and well worth your money. That said, it might be worth waiting to see if the UK release is any better in terms of visual presentation. (I for one suspect that, as with Monsters Inc., the reframed fullscreen version will be removed in order to make room for a DTS audio track.)