Aside from my brief critique of Inside Out, I haven’t written much about Pixar here. As an animation buff, this comes across as a terrible omission which should be rectified. And seeing as how I haven’t seen Finding Nemo in quite some time, and how it is often in the running for best Pixar movie ever, and how it has a sequel of some sorts around the corner, it seems like a good pick to start with.
2003’s Finding Nemo (directed by Andrew Stanton) is often picked out as the moment Pixar films matured, where they shifted from being high quality kids movies to movies which have attempted to broach more adult themes while dangling enough catoony amusement in front of younger eyes to still sell as being ostensibly for kids. And although I criticized this development when I talked about Inside Out, revisiting Nemo has made me want to backpedal a bit on that, if only because it reminded me of just how great Pixar can be.
For Nemo is indeed a very ‘adult’ film insofar as it boils down to an examination of parenthood, and in particular all the fears of parenthood: fears of loss, of failure, of rebelliousness, of inadequacy. And insofar as it functions as a critique of the helicopter parenting that has arisen in recent decades it is scathing. For a bachelor like me, Nemo comes across as rather melancholy; I can’t help but wonder if for parents it comes across as downright harrowing.
Things start off on a tragic note with a clownfish called Marlin (Albert Brooks) losing his wife and all but one of their eggs to a barracuda attack. The one remaining egg grows up into the titular Nemo (Alexander Gould), whose life is micromanaged by the now paranoid Marlin to an obsessive degree. This provokes an act of rebellion from Nemo, which results in his getting abducted by a nearby scuba-diver. Marlin sets out in pursuit, eventually teaming up with the short term memory impaired Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), with a lot of soul-searching along the way.
Again, if you were to leave out the fact that the characters were all fish, this synopsis would come across as a drama/thriller primarily focused on family tragedy. But offsetting this is the typical Pixar humor which, even if at times a bit too broad for my taste, keeps things from sliding into Don Bluth levels of emotional devastation (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing).
Of key importance to this is DeGeneres’ performance as Dory, whose non-sequiturs and manic-ness help keep things afloat – pardon the pun – and never too mired in Marlin’s moroseness. And this is a minor miracle itself, as the “happy-go-lucky” sidekick is often the most difficult character to pull off in an animated movie, all too easily coming across as grating and obnoxious, like a calliope machine invading your street. Although, true to the movie’s ambitions, Dory has just enough characterization for us to see some of the brokenness behind her antics, which elevates her into a genuinely sympathetic character.
There’s also a B plot detailing Nemo’s situation as an aquarium fish in a dentist’s office, which unfolds like a G-rated prison break story. It’s fun stuff, although a dentist’s office doesn’t quite make for the most interesting visuals.
Speaking of which, the animation: CG animation typically ages more poorly than traditional animation does, and Nemo is not quite as eye-popping as it was in 2003 (has it really been that long?). Nevertheless, it is still a pretty sight. The coral reef and its denizens is lovingly rendered – bright, but never garishly so, and more importantly it conveys the presence and fluidity of water, mainly through excellent use of lighting. All this is abetted by superior direction and cinematography (the latter by way of Sharon Calahan and Jeremy Lasky) which cribs all the right notes from live action films.
Things become a tad creakier on land, if only because, as mentioned, modern day Sydney is less visually appealing than the ocean. But also because CG animation of humans ages even more harshly, and Pixar still hadn’t quite nailed it to the degree that they would shortly afterwards.
Anyway, it’s a great film and deserves to be one of Pixar’s most popular. Whether that greatness will spill over into Finding Dory is a more dubious prospect. But I’ll try to keep an open mind.