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Finding Nemo

Disney: Get a clue. The reason computer animation has done so well in the marketplace has little to do with the animation. It's the story. Despite what the mainstream press would have you believe, bad CG films tank, too. (Let us remember Final Fantasy, and forget my initial reaction to it -- 'twas lame no matter what dimension you put it in, and sank an animation division faster than you can say Treasure Planet.)

So yes, you're going to do gangbuster business with Pixar's Finding Nemo. But not because we the public love fish that look oddly rubbery. No, this latest effort from John Lasseter's usual gang of idiots (a pejorative nod to Mad) will strike a chord because it is an interesting play on a theme that everyone can identify with: the parent/child relationship.

Finding Nemo is also the darkest film from Pixar yet. Though the studio has flirted with vaguely challenging themes before (Woody's thinly disguised facing of mortality in Toy Story 2, this film tackles them head on, and parents should beware that little ones may get upset at points.

But that's a good thing, because like Walt Disney himself, the directors (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich) and their mentor (Lassetter) are simply showing respect for their audience. Life in and out of the sea isn't all songs and dances, and pretty things can still hide danger. Pixar won't pretend otherwise. But they can still make it fun.

Albert Brooks voices Marlin, a clownfish overprotective of his only son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). The film opens with Marlin in happier days, an expectant parent with his wife Coral (Elizabeth Perkins). Happy to have moved into a prime piece of anemone real estate, the fish dream of the future with their hundreds of unhatched children.

That dream meets a violent end as a barracuda invades the neighborhood, feasting on the family (offscreen) until all that are left are Marlin and one last cracked egg. In honor of Coral, Marlin names the egg Nemo rather than Marlin, Jr., and takes the vow that every new father does: "I promise I'll never let anything happen to you."

Most of us say those words but understand that a lot of that power is beyond us. Not Marlin. He means it, and by the time Nemo is ready for school, the boy chafes under his father's love.

And yet, Marlin's fears are understandable. The crack in the egg caused Nemo to have an underdeveloped fin ("his lucky fin"), and the young fish may be a little too daring in order to compensate. But when he defies his father and swims into "The Deep," disaster strikes.

Captured by a human diver, Nemo soon finds himself in a dentist's aquarium in Sydney, Australia. Worse, though, he has a date with destiny as a gift for the dentist's niece - a nightmarish looking little girl who has a tendency to kill fish within minutes of receiving them.

Ignorant of his son's plight but determined to rescue him, Marlin overcomes his own fears in order to follow that diver.

Of course, the two fish grow stronger in their independent journeys, and discover how much they need each other, too. But it's not the tale, it's the telling, and Pixar does a great job with it.

Finding Nemo isn't as funny as their earlier efforts, but then again, this is a more mature work. There are still laughs. For the most part they're natural, coming gently out of the situations at hand. Only the surfer dude turtles seem a bit of a stretch.

Even when funny, a lot of characters are just being true to themselves. Finding Nemo offers the best translation of seagull thought ever committed to film. (Not a huge category, but still…) And though Bruce the Shark (Barry Humphries) wants to swear off being a carnivore, a little blood in the water quickly changes him from clown to killer.

This film has poignance, a lot of which comes from the vocal performances. Brooks' typical uptight tone doesn't make for the most cuddly of leading characters, but it absolutely fits a father trying to hold on so tight that of course he's going to lose his son. Even Ellen DeGeneres as Dory, though meant largely as comic relief, has some surprisingly touching moments as she struggles to overcome her short-term memory handicap.

If Finding Nemo has a weakness, it's one that plagues a lot of movies lately. A few sequences are too easily and obviously translatable into a videogame; I checked the box at Best Buy a few days ago to confirm it. Though visually exciting, such scenes interrupt the flow. The climax of the film plays out much more organically and sensibly without losing any power.

Forget about the toys you can buy and the games you can play. Finding Nemo stands on its own as a good animated film. Ink and paint could certainly still rival it in beauty; we just need to get some good storytellers working in 2D again.

What's It Worth? $8.50


Derek McCaw

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