Finding Nemo
Fish story: Dory and Marlin need help finding Nemo
Emru Townsend · May 23, 2003 | During the last decade, the publicists who beat the studio feature animation drum have always gone on about "state of the art" (read: computer-based) animation techniques, and for the most part the mainstream media has lapped it up. It's reached a fever pitch in the last few years, with even reviewers I otherwise respect suggesting that technique has become paramount. To pick a random example, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman suggested, in his 2001 review of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, that a major problem with the film is that his "eye, seduced by the devious and tactile delights of Shrek, [has] already evolved in tandem with the technological leaps in computer animation."

One way to respond, aside from a rather rude expletive, is to point Mr. Gleiberman and his bedazzled comrades in the direction of the nearest sixty-year-old Looney Tunes cartoon and ask him if his eye has evolved so far that he can no longer appreciate it. Another way is to see Pixar's latest film, Finding Nemo, which is prefaced by Knick Knack, a Pixar short from 1989.

Visually, there's nothing in Knick Knack that a determined hobbyist couldn't do nowadays with off-the-shelf software and a two-year-old PC. Many of the "technological leaps" that Gleiberman refers to had yet to be developed. But it still elicits laughter as the film's hapless snowman repeatedly fails in his quest to escape his snow globe—only to end the film with a rat-a-tat sequence that repeatedly snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and vice versa.

All together now, kids: the story, driven by distinctive characters, is key. Gorgeous visuals are a bonus. The Pixar team has known that since day one, and that's why their films have been kicking box-office ass since Toy Story, while the Mouse House and other studios have been struggling.

I mention all this because, on the surface, Finding Nemo confirms the sentiments of the CGI fetishists. It depicts the ocean's natural splendor with an almost offhand grace while balancing the needs of realism (say, the textures on a 150-year-old sea turtle's shell) and animation (getting Dory, a regal blue tang fish, to subtly look like voice actor Ellen DeGeneres), and it'll make boatloads of money. It's an obvious equation, right?

Finding Nemo
Pixar Animation Studios, 2003
Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
101 minutes

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Wrong. Those boatloads of money will come from the strength of the story and the characters. Finding Nemo starts on a surprisingly dark note when a clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) loses his mate and their eggs to a barracuda—all except for the one damaged egg that produces his son Nemo (Alexander Gould), who has a weak right fin. Owing to the tragedy and the underpowered fin, Marlin is extremely cautious and overprotective, which chafes at Nemo's natural curiosity and adventurousness. When Nemo is captured by a diver for his aquarium, Marlin is determined to find his son even if he has to swim the entire ocean to do it. His staunchest ally is Dory, who makes up for her lack of short term memory with considerable enthusiasm.

It's not surprising that, like all of the Pixar films, Finding Nemo deftly mixes laughs (an AA-like meeting of sharks who are trying to kick the habit of eating other fish), adventure (Marlin's quest, Nemo's attempts at escape the aquarium), and—most important of all—a strong emotional core. Albert Brooks delivers a great performance as Marlin's fear of losing the rest of his family drives him to desperation, anger, and despair. Every line is delivered with a feeling of urgency derived from his love for his lost son. This, too, is not new; every Pixar film is driven in some way by characters' bonds with one another. It just so happens that this is their first to depict the bond between blood relatives. (For that matter, how many animated films focus on the bond between a living father and his son? Not enough, if you ask me.)

Like Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo benefits by being shepherded by an old Pixar hand who has his own particular voice. It provides a feel that's consistent with that of other Pixar films, but at the same time it's not a Pete Docter film (Monsters, Inc.) or a John Lasseter film (everything else). It's a little more urgent, and maybe a little more off the wall—the incidental characters all have quirks that crack you up just thinking about them—something that, as far as I can tell, is entirely in keeping with Nemo writer/director Andrew Stanton's personality. (Watch any Pixar DVD extra for footage of him next to the relatively easygoing Lasseter. He appears to have been born with a mischievous gleam in his eye. Better yet, see if you can find his 1987 short film, A Story.)

I like the way Pixar is handing off films to new, yet experienced, directors within the company; they have their own storytelling rhythms and yet follow the same principles that has made every one of the company's films a hit. It also helps that the team clearly works well together. All of which just goes to show that Pixar's magic owes a lot to its particular culture rather than some cynically derived formula. Studios desperate to set up CGI animation units hoping to duplicate Pixar's success will likely fail if they forget that these things are far more important than slick imagery.
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