The mischievous play of sunlight sparkling through crystal blue oceans. The dance of underwater plants undulating in currents whose warmth you can practically feel. The pulsing mass of squishy pink jellyfish dangling a forest of tentacles. The toothy nightmare of a devious angler fish looming from dark and mysterious depths. Finding Nemo is stunningly exquisite, an extraordinary leap forward in artistry for Pixar, and for computer animation in general, bringing a strange and alien world to life, so real you could almost reach out and touch it, knowing that it would be wet if you did. Truly, Nemo is an immersive experience.
But only visually. Because the moment all the gorgeously rendered inhabitants of this beautiful undersea realm open their mouths, they sound surprisingly, and rather depressingly, human. It’s pretty churlish, I know, to fault writer/director Andrew Stanton, a Pixar vet (Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 2), who’s created a sweet, simple story with chuckles in all the right places, a host of scares, and enough Disneyfied angst to keep little tykes awake at night: Nemo, a young orange and white clownfish (the voice of Alexander Gould: They), gets fishnapped out of the waters of the Great Barrier Reef by a scuba diver, and his nebbishy, neurotic dad, Marlin (the voice of Albert Brooks: The Muse, Out of Sight), must go in search of his son while simultaneously overcoming his own fears of… well, in traditional Albert Brooks fashion, just about everything. Marlin befriends Dory (the voice of Ellen DeGeneres: The Love Letter, EDtv), a blue tang with a memory problem, who insists on tagging along on Marlin’s journey, and Nemo makes all manner of new friends in his new home, a tank in a dentist’s office overlooking Sydney Harbor, and everyone has adventures and all the voice performances are top-notch and, as I said, the whole shebang is absolutely lovely to look at.
Churlish… but it’s not enough.
Oh, it’s enough for a trip to the movies with the kids, who’ll absorb the gentle, unchallenging lessons along with their popcorn: “Friends can help you through your troubles,” “Life is about trying new things.” But it’s not enough to satisfy the geeky, grownup crowd Pixar has trained — with the sly, subversive Toy Story flicks and, to a lesser extent, the sweetly clever Monsters, Inc. — to expect to have our minds blown by a Pixar film. So we anticipate, from Finding Nemo, an entree into a secret world that lies just beyond our own, one with whom our bare interactions have hardly hinted at its wonders.
But there’s no Wow! here. There’s no moment when we suddenly become aware of and instantly sympathetic to the peculiarly fishy desires and dreams of the creatures that live under the sea. Unlike Woody and Buzz, with their uniquely toyish personalities, or Mike and Scully, who are without question monster-y, the characters in Nemo aren’t fish: they’re humans in fish costumes. Marlin’s anxieties are human anxieties with fishy window dressing. The gang of sharks (the voices of Barry Humphries: Nicholas Nickleby, Eric Bana: Chopper, and Bruce Spence: Queen of the Damned) who’ve created their own self-help group as they attempt to refrain from eating fellow fishies… well, thatz]s passingly amusing, but it’s antithetical to what sharks are. The only ocean dwellers onscreen that come close to satisfying that Pixar jones are the ones who aren’t characters at all but merely part of the scenery, like the jellyfish and the angler.
It’s kinda too bad that the most compulsively watchable part of the film are the closing credits, which unspool to the strains of a snappy rendition, by Robbie Williams, of “Beyond the Sea.” It’s as soothing as gazing at a fish tank, and I challenge you to find the motivation to walk out before they’re over. If only the rest of the film had the same capacity to rivet.
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2003