Friday, May 30, 2003
Great movies for kids often begin with a dead mother. Think of "Babe," "Bambi" and "The Bear," to name three touching pictures in which animals grow up without a mom's wisdom and love.
"Finding Nemo" belongs in that company. The title character never knows his mother, who's gobbled by a bigger fish before her lone surviving son leaves his egg. Nemo grows up along Australia's Great Barrier Reef with a deformed fin, an overprotective dad and a desire to see the world. A dentist nets the unwary young clownfish for his office aquarium, and Nemo's attempts to get home have all the elements of a classic journey toward maturity.
Writer-director Andrew Stanton has worked on all of Pixar's animated megahits: He contributed to the stories of both "Toy Story" films, co-directed "A Bug's Life" and wrote "Monsters Inc."
His new film tips the parent-child balance in favor of adults, who'll get all the gags: A Fisheaters Anonymous support group will go over the heads of kids, as sharks restrain a bloodthirsty pal while yelling "Intervention!" There's slapstick aplenty, but more wit than wackiness.
Stanton has disguised a traditional summer action comedy as G-rated animation, and five minutes can't go by in "Nemo" without a life-threatening situation. (Who thought of calling the little hero "Nemo," anyhow? That's the name of the murderous, reclusive megalomaniac in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.")
Chalk up another triumph for the gang at Pixar, whose "Monsters, Inc.," "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story" have proven this generation's most reliable animated pleasures. In their latest treasure, a young clown fish is netted by divers, and it's up to his overprotective father (voiced by Albert Brooks) to find him.
Nemo's scenes summon memories of great prison-break movies, as he and his ensnared comrades -- a placid starfish, a boisterous blowfish, a French shrimp, a battle-scarred Moorish gill and others -- scheme to get out of the aquarium before the dentist gives Nemo to his careless niece, Darla. (The last fish she inherited, the gill shudders, "took a ride on the porcelain express.")
Meanwhile, Nemo's frantic dad deals with untrustworthy sharks, a hypnotically deadly anglerfish and blissed-out turtles surfing the potent East Australian Current. Dad's accompanied only by a daffy dory whose short-term memory blinks on and off like a sputtering light bulb.
Stanton and his crew delight in tributes, from the "Psycho" murder music on Darla's approach to a reference to Hitchcock's "The Birds." I've never seen seagulls so impassively frightening; they resemble the evil, BB-eyed penguin from the Wallace and Gromit shorts. Stanton obviously grew up on Monty Python movies, which inspire lines and line readings. ("Swim away! Swim away!" shout the sharks, echoing the prudent knights in "Holy Grail.")
Pixar's employees, masters of computer-generated animation, capture the look of the ocean like no artists before. The water appears to have weight and depth, and shadows shift realistically against the textured bottom. Plankton, grit and other detritus float past us or hang suspended, as waves toy with them.
Against this realistic backdrop dart gaily-colored fish, moving among a gaudily beautiful rendering of the Great Barrier Reef. The film doesn't preach about ecological destruction, but anyone enjoying these hues will be saddened to discover that pollution threatens the reef in real life.
The vocal talent is unvaryingly right, from Willem Dafoe's grim-voiced gill to Albert Brooks' nervous papa clownfish. Alexander Gould is a chipper but never irritating Nemo, and Stanton voices the "hey, dude" dialogue of the laid-back turtle. Ellen DeGeneres makes a sweetly confused dory -- animators gave the fish her freckles and crooked mouth -- and Barry Humphries has a field day as a very butch shark. (The Aussie actor is usually found in drag, playing Dame Edna Everage.)
P.S. "Knick Knack" is being screened before "Nemo." Pixar head John Lasseter directed that delightful 1989 short about a tiny snowman who wants to leave his snow globe and join the bikinied babe beckoning to him from the end of his shelf. I wish Hollywood still supplied this kind of extra value with every feature.