In its opening weekend, Pixar’s latest film, Finding Nemo — which follows the hugely successful animated films Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monster’s Inc — managed to blow away the competition, including Bruce Almighty and the Matrix sequel. The film is not in the same league as Toy Story or Monster’s Inc., but it is solid, with captivating animation, entertaining characters, and an uplifting story for the family.
Finding Nemo is the story of Nemo’s separation from, and eventual reunion with, his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks). Just after Nemo (Alexander Gould) swims away from his father to prove that he can handle himself in the dangerous ocean, a scuba diver captures him. He ends up in an aquarium in a dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia, where his fellow fish offer wry and technically precise observations on a variety of dental procedures.
Among the many humorous scenes is one featuring sharks in a 12-step program to overcome their addiction to eating fish. The leader, Bruce, with his wide mouth and menacing teeth, looks a bit like the evil plant (“the mean green mutha from outer space”) in that underappreciated comic gem, the remake of The Little Shop of Horrors. At Step 5 — bring a fish friend to a meeting — Bruce proclaims, “I’m a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine.” But one whiff of fish blood causes a relapse, “I’m having fish for dinner,” he says with cruel delight and heads off after his prey. As he barges in on hiding fish, he does a wonderful Jack Nicholson: “Here’s Brucie!”
But the real show stealer here is Dory, the fish who befriends Marlin and assists him in his quest to find his son. As the voice of Dory, the fish with no short-term memory, Ellen DeGeneres turns in her best acting performance to date. Marlin and Dory confront a series of obstacles in their quest, the most threatening of which is a school of jellyfish, the animation for which is stunning. By hopping on the tops of the jellyfish, they nearly manage to escape but end up being scraped by tentacles and rendered unconscious. Sea turtles, with surfer accents and droopy eye lids that give them a slightly stoned look, rescue them and express astonishment at their trek through the jellyfish: “You’ve got serious thrill issues. Awesome, dude!”
Once reunited, Marlin begins to repeat the overprotective behavior that had prompted Nemo to flee in the first place. He begins to warn Nemo that he’s incapable of doing what he thinks he can do, but then he relents and Nemo’s confidence soars. On the surface, it seems as if the lesson of the film conforms to standard Hollywood pabulum about the superior insight and character of children over adults, about how adults need to exercise less authority and go easy on kids. But that’s misleading.
Marlin does have a thing or two to learn about being a father, mostly about the dangers of being overprotective, of an inordinate desire to shield his kid from the challenges life presents. But then Dad has more reason than most parents to be fearful, since a barracuda devoured the rest of his reef dwelling family. Still, the film plays nicely upon the culture of fear that seems to pervade so many families in contemporary America, a culture that coddles children instead of challenging and inspiring them.
Finding Nemo could also be titled Finding Marlin, since Nemo is on a quest to return to his father, a quest that leads to the unexpected discovery of virtues in his father that he had not previously seen. In a wonderfully constructed sequence, rumors about Marlin’s quest to find his son begin to circulate among the various aquatic creatures; the distinctive animation and verbal accents for each group subtly highlights the rich diversity of ocean life. Eventually, by means of a friendly pelican, word reaches Nemo at the dentist’s office and he beams with joy and awe to learn of his father’s devotion and courage. In its celebration of the bond between fathers and sons, Finding Nemo is a rare Hollywood production indeed.