[Our Sunday Visitor, May 27, 2003]
You probably don’t need any encouragement from me to see Pixar animation studio’s new feature, "Finding Nemo." If you have kids in the house, they have been clamoring about it for weeks. You can’t turn on a TV without seeing the dazzling colorful ads. You can’t go to the store without passing mounds of Nemo plush toys. If you huddled on the floor with your arms crossed over your head, someone would still shove Nemo fast-food coupons under the door.
For once, a film deserves its hype. Nemo’s reviews have been glowing, and some critics are calling it the best film this year. It comes with a sterling pedigree: Pixar’s previous work includes "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," "A Bug’s Life," and "Monsters, Inc." This studio has not only pioneered computer animation, but has had a consistently whimsical, kid-friendly touch. In a Pixar film you’ll get a minimum of sarcasm and adult eyebrow-waggling humor that supposedly goes over kids’ heads. Instead you’ll get likeable characters doing admirable things, usually in very funny ways. These are loveable films.
But "Finding Nemo" won’t be my favorite Pixar film. There’s nothing really to complain about-which alone puts it leagues ahead of every other film out there. The beauty of the undersea world depicted here, a fantasy of brilliant colors in a realistic soft haze, is alone worth the admission price. But, compared to previous Pixar films, the characters are just a little flatter, and the story line more predictable.
That story concerns a dad fish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), who is overprotective of his young son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). When Nemo defiantly takes a risk, disaster strikes and he is captured for a dentist’s aquarium. Marlin immediately sets out to rescue his son, though the task is apparently impossible. Father-love perseveres, however. It’s "The Runaway Bunny" with fins.
The idea has promise, so why does it feel so stilted? Because the challenges Marlin encounters are so repetitive. It’s like he’s going through an obstacle course: climb the wall, hop through the tires, dodge the jellyfish, escape from the sharks. Compare it with other heroic-quest movies: "The Wizard of Oz," "The Neverending Story," even "O Brother Where Art Thou" as a grownup example. In Oz, Dorothy doesn’t just keep running into one scary test after another. She learns how to get apples from grumpy trees, comforts a cowardly lion, gets dolled up in the Oz beauty salon, weeps for her Auntie Em. It is dreamlike, uncertain, complex, imaginative, full of the unexpected.
But everything in Nemo is by-the-book, the book of kid-marketing, perhaps. All Marlin’s encounters are challenges of strength and courage. He’s got to appear to fail each time before he succeeds. He’s got the requisite stupid sidekick (Ellen DeGeneres voices Dory excellently, but the character’s extremely narrow face is less expressive, and thus less loveable, than it might have been). The filmmakers know just how scary, just how poignant, things ought to be. They know exactly how many seconds to allow you to think a character is dead before his eyebrows flutter. This film doesn’t feel like magic, it feels like a marathon.
With so much garbage out there, even among what’s sold as children’s films, "Finding Nemo" deserves to find a big audience. I expect it will be a happy audience; the show I attended was packed with kids, who broke into applause at the end. I hope the next film from this team of geniuses will deserve it even more.
Now That’s Creepy Dept: "Finding Nemo" marks the third time in less than a year that a film’s lead characters have been swallowed alive by a whale ("Jonah", "Pinocchio"). What are they trying to tell us?
The first feature-length animated film was Walt Disney’s "Snow White" (1937). Unlike "Nemo", "The Wizard of Oz", or "Alice in Wonderland," all of which are stories authored in recent centuries, "Snow White" is a folk tale that shows up across the continents from Ireland to Asia Minor to Central Africa. Ask: What made this story so resonant for so many cultures? Why do so many children’s stories concern children in danger? Why are the children often orphans? Most of these stories are told from the child’s point of view, but the Pixar films take the adult characters’ viewpoint. Is this a dramatic plus or minus?