Pixar Studios, using 3-D computer graphics, have had an amazing succession of animated hits in the last few years with “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “Monster’s Inc.,” and 2003’s “Finding Nemo.” It seems that every time they come out with a new movie, it tops the previous one in some respect or another. “Finding Nemo” earned over $338,000,000, demolished its animated competition for the year, “Sinbad,” and one-upped its own predecessors in the visuals department. Of course, it gets a two-disc Collector’s Edition set.
“Finding Nemo” is undoubtedly a great family film and destined, I’m sure, to go down as a children’s classic. Nevertheless, my own feelings about it are a bit more mixed than they were about Pixar’s previous releases. Not that I wouldn’t recommend “Nemo” to anyone, especially to anyone with kids, but my opinions about it for grown-ups are a little more guarded. While I thought the animation was fantastic, I didn’t think the plot or the characters were particularly well developed, nor did I care for the movie’s general absence of song, something I’ve come to expect from a Disney or Pixar product.
Let’s start with plot. It involves fish, two fish, parent and offspring clown fish named Marlin and Nemo. Together, they create a sweet and inspiring father-son relationship that grows on the viewer as the story progresses. After the death of his wife, Marlin is trying to raise young Nemo as best he can, but like many parents, he finds his child can’t see that dad’s rules for him are for his own good. Nemo feels his father doesn’t love him and doesn’t want him around. In the course of events, Nemo one day defies his father’s orders and ventures too far from their coral-reef home, resulting in his being captured by a scuba diving dentist for his office aquarium. The plot then becomes a hero quest involving Marlin’s determined efforts to find his son and rescue him.
Andrew Stanton co-directed and cowrote “Finding Nemo,” and it was he who came up with the story idea. He is an old hand at this sort of thing, having done the stories for “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and the two “Toy Story” films. Maybe he’s done one too many. Certainly, a person would anticipate a simple plot for a simple children’s adventure, but this plot line really doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises: Some bumps in the ocean road as Marlin pursues his mission, the customary meetings with colorful characters, and the inevitable happy ending. I don’t know what kind of action I figured on, but it all seemed a bit less inspired and less imaginative than I would have liked, too cutesy and too juvenile for my taste.
All right, I know, it’s a kid’s film. But Stanton’s other work appealed to my sensibilities as an adult as well as it appealed to children. To be fair, the movie does pick up as it goes along, and I did enjoy Marlin’s clash with a menacing deep-sea killer fish, his encounter with a school of sea turtles, and his scraps navigating through a field of jellyfish, which present a graceful yet deadly obstacle to his pursuit. And for extra measure, the ending made me smile. But it just didn’t seem enough.
Albert Brooks is the voice of Marlin, and he’s probably the most welcome part of the film. No one does the frantic, befuddled, perpetually perplexed, whining neurotic better than Brooks; and just as Woody Allen stole the show in “Antz,” so does Brooks carry the picture here. His voice is instantly identifiable even behind the fish face, and one can feel the father’s anguish through Brooks’s vocal mannerisms. Nemo, on the other hand, is voiced by nine-year-old Alexander Gould, who sounds like a typical nine-year-old; in fact, he sounds so much like a kid, he almost sounds phoney, which I guess slightly grated on me and shouldn’t have. Ellen DeGeneres fares better as Dory, a lonely, memory-impaired female fish that Marlin encounters in his search and who becomes an important, funny, but sometimes annoying ally.
Other characters are filled out by the voices of such distinguished thespians as Geoffrey Rush as Nigel, a helpful pelican; Willem Dafoe as Gill, a tough-guy tropical fish with a kind heart; Barry Humphries as Bruce, a shark trying to learn to be nice to his fellow fish and not eat them; the director, Andrew Stanton, as Crush, a hip sea turtle; Allison Janney as Peach, a starfish lookout; and Austin Pendleton as Gurgle, one of the most recognizable voices of the bunch. All of these characters and vocal characterizations are appropriate, useful, and vital, but none of them are very memorable. Rather than my remembering each of these characters as individuals, I tended to view them all as a blur.
I also wish there had been more notable music in the movie and maybe a couple of songs. The music is something I’ve come to depend upon in these things. Where are Billy Crystal or John Goodman singing Randy Newman tunes when you need them? This one has some perfectly acceptable but mundane background scoring by Thomas Newman and the old standard “Beyond the Sea” playing over the closing credits. I suppose I’ve gotten used to animated musicals since my childhood, and I’ve come to respect the occasional hummable tune.
Overriding all of this, however, is the film’s look. It is spectacular. Indeed, “Finding Nemo” may be the most beautiful and detailed animated movie ever made. Both the undersea world of Nemo’s coral reef home and the aquarium milieu of Nemo’s captivity come off fabulously. One never tires of simply staring at these computer-generated wonders from the Pixar wizards. The screen is filled with a fantasy of soft, rainbow colors, exotic fish, and gently undulating anemone and other undersea vegetation. Water itself has never looked so real in real life! Interestingly, though, the human figures and their human properties are rendered less realistically, perhaps intentionally to set the film apart as a make-believe creation, after all, or perhaps because the art of 3-D CGI is not yet able to recreate perfectly the nuances of the human face and form. In any event, it doesn’t matter. If computer-generated animations keep looking this good, they will make traditional two-dimensional cartoons obsolete.
Truth is, if this movie had been made in traditional 2-D animation, I’m convinced it wouldn’t have caused much of a stir. But it wasn’t, and it did. So, if I’ve sounded like I’ve merely been harping, forgive me. Critics forget to have fun sometimes. Instead of thinking about the movie too much, I’d advise a person to simply look and admire and enjoy. “Finding Nemo” is clearly worth one’s time.
The THX-mastered video is presented in two screen formats, an anamorphic widescreen version with an aspect ratio measuring approximately 1.74:1 and a standard fullscreen version at 1.33:1. The full-frame format adds a little more information to the top and/or bottom of the screen while cutting out material at the sides. I watched in widescreen, naturally, where the colors practically glow. Needless to say, if the transfer hadn’t been up the demands of the motion picture’s graphics, the entire enterprise might have been defeated. Fortunately, everything is up to par as this disc compares to the very best DVDs currently available. Definition is sharp, hues are brilliant, gradations of contrast are subtle and distinct, grain is virtually nonexistent, and moiré effects are at a minimum.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX sonics reproduce every note in the audible spectrum with urgency and conviction. The bass is tremendously deep, the dynamics are wide and powerful, and the transient impact is strong. The result is that some scenes will knock the dust from your rafters. There is also an excellent sense of surround at all times as the listener is enveloped by the sounds of rushing, swishing, gurgling water, musical ambience, and distant voices.
Each of the two discs in the set contains a goodly number of extra goodies. Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of the film, the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual tests, English as the only spoken language, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. In addition, disc one contains a brief introduction with the filmmakers and a visual commentary with the filmmakers (co-directors Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich and cowriter Bob Peterson), which includes deleted scenes and special behind-the-scenes inserts. There is also a twenty-minute documentary, “Making Nemo,” that goes into technical detail about the film’s creation and is probably aimed more at adults than children; design galleries in various categories for art, characters, environments, and color script; a series of “virtual aquariums,” animated screen savers from the movie; and thirty-two scene selections. As usual with these Disney-inspired packages, the slim-line keep case includes a handy booklet insert with a road map for navigating all this stuff.
Disc two contains the full-frame presentation of the film, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual tests, and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles. The extras on this second disc are more child oriented, which is why, I suppose, they’re included with the full-frame version of the movie. Among these extras are a seven-minute featurette called “Exploring the Reef,” with Jean-Michel Cousteau, Nemo, and friends; a short, 1989 Pixar animated film, “Knick Knack”; a Sneak Peek at Pixar’s “The Incredibles”; the “Virtual Aquarium” feature repeated from disc one; a “Fisharades” game, where the player has to guess what shapes a school of silverfish are taking; seven minutes’ worth of “Mr. Ray’s Encyclopedia” facts; a “Storytime Fun for the Young” read-along of “Nemo Goes to School”; and a “Behind-the-Scenes” segment that consists of character interviews, a tour of Pixar studios with star Alexander Gould, and various publicity items like four widescreen trailers, three quick promos, and a print gallery of posters, billboards, lobby cards, and bus-shelter ads. And once again there are thirty-two scene selections.
It appears that Pixar has become so big, so successful, and so important, they may not need Disney anymore as a partner. As of this writing, they were looking to make new associations or to go it alone and share the profits with no one. Can’t blame them. The Emeryville, California, outfit has taken the animation world by storm, and it was only a matter of time before they thought of becoming fully independent. In any case, with the success of “Finding Nemo” and with a greatly anticipated “Incredibles” flick coming up, Pixar is riding on top of the world.
If I were rating “Nemo” for younger children, I’d give it a “10.” But my reaction as an adult for other adults is a bit less enthusiastic, especially compared to my more appreciative response to “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.” Still, while “Nemo” may not have as strong a plot or characters as the studio’s previous hits, it is so gorgeous to look at, you may never notice. A “7” seems appropriate, all things considered. Or fill in your own rating. One thing’s sure: the DVD’s picture and sound does it proud.