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Non-Review Review: Finding Nemo

You know, even after all this time, I think that Finding Nemo views with The Incredibles as my favourite Pixar production. I respect and appreciate the sheer artistry and technical skill that went into Wall-E and I think Uprepresents the company’s most mature work to date, but I think Nemo perfectly captures everything that I love about the company – the maturity, the humour, the adventure, the technical skill of it all. Plus it has perhaps the best voice cast of the films.

The life aquatic...

It’s interesting to compare how Pixar deals with the common theme of parental abandonment, as compared to the way that other companies traditionally handle it. The idea of a child separated from their parents and locked away is a powerful one, tapping into our own primal fears and easily generating quite a bit of emotional torque with the audience. A lot of conventional animation, including some of Disney’s work, focuses on this forced separation from the perspective of the child, using it to explore when a child really comes into their own and treating the inevitable adventure or journey as something of a right of passage – in find their way home, or escaping their circumstances, the children grow up and achieve some measure of independence.

However, I think what allows Pixar’s work to resonate so effectively with the adults in the audience is that they approach that common storytelling device from the other side – they spend as much time considering the impact of children on their parents as they do contemplating the effect that parents have on their kids. It’s been stated before that Toy Story is the story of a kid growing up, and Woody and Buzz serve as stand-ins for Andy’s parents, coming to terms with life without him. Finding Nemo is much more direct about it: when little Nemo is kidnapped, we spend far more time with his father than we do with Nemo himself.

Anchors away...

The opening sequence establishes why Marlon is so protective of Nemo, even if his concerns and worries are only the amplified fears shared by most parents anywhere. I still think that the film’s opening sequence stands as one of the most emotionally dark introductions to a Pixar film ever – at least Carl and Ellie got to have a long and full life together before she passed away (although both couples suffer for their desire to have children). We understand why Marlon wants to hang on to his child for as long as possible, and how his fears are grounded in a lesson he learned long ago. The sequence isn’t loud or violent or shocking – it’s over mercifully quickly – but it hangs in the air and remains something that probably packs even more emotional punch than it did when I first watched it.

You could make the argument that Finding Nemo is a relatively conventional film in the Pixar line-up, and you’d be right. It’s one of the very few Pixar films I could see being produced elsewhere, but with nowhere near the same skill or class. The film is basically a quest movie, with Marlon and his companion Dory setting out across the Great Barrier Reef to recover the kidnapped Nemo, while Nemo makes new friends in a dentist’s aquarium and plots his own escape. It’s a simple story, and one that isn’t bold or radical or especially ingenious. It’s not to hard to conceive a conventional animated Disney version of the film, albeit one that would play out quite differently.

Shark's Tale...

However, it’s the elements that play out within this framework that lend the movie its appeal. I’m not just talking about the film’s sense of fun, which hold true even today. I smiled at the references to other films, like the shark named Bruce (Spielberg’s nickname for the shark in Jaws) or a pelican uttering the line, “Hop inside my mouth if you want to live.” The action sequences – including a shark attack by a sunken submarine, a race across a patch of jellyfish, and a dogfight between a pelican and a flock of seagulls (“mine!”) are perhaps the best in any Pixar film, and they represent true popcorn moments, of the kind that get overshadowed by the emotional complexity Pixar bring to the table.

What’s remarkable about Finding Nemo, as measured against most of Pixar’s (and most of Disney’s) other films, is the fact that there’s no real villain to the piece. In fact, the whole point of the movie, when viewed upon mature reflection, seems to be that every animal has its own particular nature, even man. Hell, the dentist who kidnaps Nemo from the Reef seems to assume he did the poor creature a kindness, insisting, “I found that little guy struggling for life out on the reef and I saved him.” The sharks who attack Marlon and Dory are fighting their own addiction (and, the film humourously suggests, fighting the cycle of neglect in their own lives, with Bruce moaning, “I never knew my father!”) and the patch of jellyfish seem completely oblivious to Dory and Marlon as they swim through.

Clowning around...

Even Nigel, the Pelican who plays a key part in the rescue attempt, apologises for eating fish, but justifies it through the fair application of the circle of life. “A fish’s gotta swim and a bird’s gotta eat,” he explains, while remaining a perfectly pleasant sort of fellow throughout the film, even helping Marlon later on. Hell, he only encounters Marlon while a fellow pelican is planning on chowing down on the poor fish. Finding Nemo is remarkable in the way that it doesn’t vilify anyone. The film seems to accept that this is the way the world works with a mature reflection that seems beyond most films set in the animal kingdom. I honestly think the film works much better on visiting it as an adult, when all this maturity becomes more obvious than it initially seemed.

Of course, the fact that it’s a bright a colourful adventure doesn’t mean that the characters get shortchanged. In particular, there’s something that’s incredibly appealing, yet heartbreakingly tragic about Marlon’s friend Dory. Played by Ellen DeGeneres in the best role of her career, Dory is the movie’s plucky comic relief, a task she’s more than capable of. However, the film also treats her recurring bouts of amnesia (generally regarded as one of the better portrayals in pop culture) with the weight it deserves. There’s something genuinely sad when Nemo finds her after Marlon abandons her, as she’s completely lost, but can’t even remember that she’s lost. “I think I lost somebody,” she tells Nemo, “but I can’t remember.” Now that’s a moment, right there.

Albert Brooks is great as Marlon, a father who needs to learn to allow Nemo to come into his own. We can understand Marlon’s motivations, and they keep him sympathetic even when his obsessive control freak tendencies tend to alienate those around him. There’s something truly touching about the way the movie suggests his vow to protect Nemo from the world might not be in the best interest of the child. “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him,” Dory suggests, in a moment of insight. “Then nothing would ever happen to him.”I’m not quite sure this is Brooks’ best performance, but it’s up there – and I think the casting here stands as the absolute pinnacle of Pixar’s near-perfect casting division.

Turning to jelly...

This says nothing of the sheer beauty of the animation. When I watch Planet Earth, I devour the under water episodes, so there might be something about the movie that appeals to my own preferences, but I think the world of Finding Nemo looks absolutely stunning and beautiful, with its countless inhabitants. I love the shoal that can do impressions, or the activity on the first day of school. As mentioned above, the action scenes are brilliant.

I love Finding Nemo. I genuinely think it’s Pixar at their very best, despite the fact it isn’t the company at their most ambitious or their most original, but I do think it’s the company work at its absolute peak performance, with every single part of the machine perfectly oiled.

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5 Responses

  1. Agreed wholeheartedly. As much as I love Up, this is easily the most fun I’ve had with a Pixar film, and perhaps it’s most balanced and well rounded.

    If I were an Oscar voter, I would’ve included DeGeneres in my Best Actress section of my ballot.

    • Yep, but you’ll never see an animated performance nominated. I think Avatar 2 is the only shot a motion-capture performance has at a nomination in the years to come.

      • I know it’s a character that’s already been done, but you can’t overlook Gollum in either Hobbit film, either. Serkis has gotten himself quite the following after RotPotA/Lord of the Rings. While his one (but lengthy) scene stays pretty isolated, it could happen.

  2. Loved this review. Makes me want to see the film again. Thank you!

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