Movies

Swimming With Sharks

Finding Nemo is a dazzling film about a clown fish.

Pixar does fish: no sushi for Bruce the shark
Pixar does fish: no sushi for Bruce the shark

When you head off to the latest Pixar feature, you expect astonishingly fluid animation, dazzling dimensional detail, a rollicking pace that’s a little too kinetic for small kids (maybe a little too kinetic for Indiana Jones movies), and a script packed with vaudeville-esque patter and “in” jokes (many aimed at grown-ups but, given the alarming pop-culture savvy of small children, probably understood by all but the youngest tots). You also expect the usual Disney homilies and characters suitable for fast-food tie-ins and merchandising. What you might not expect is the sheer, eye-popping beauty of Finding Nemo (Disney/Pixar). It turns out that Pixar does fish like nobody does fish.

And that’s not anthropomorphized fish, either. True, the hero, a clown fish called Marlin, has the unmistakable needy cadences of Albert Brooks. But he’s not some Charlie the Tuna/Hollywood type with fins. He’s phosphorescent orange with white stripes, and his fin-flutters manage to be at once emotionally expressive and, well, deeply fishlike. And let me tell you about the turtles, the whales, the jellyfish, the pelicans—not to mention the coral reef that seems every bit as alive as the rest of the characters.

It’s clear that the folks who put this film together (under the direction of Andrew Stanton, also a co-writer) became intoxicated by their undersea (and aquarium) settings. They must have immersed themselves, so to speak, in the minutiae: the insides and outsides of fish, the varieties of vegetation, the vast array of colors, even the level of salinity. You can sense that every frame contains hundreds of decisions about light and color and movement—and, more to the point, they’re all inspired decisions!

Finding Nemo won’t open your mind the way a masterpiece like the Japanese Spirited Away (2002) will. It’s a corporate product. But it’s unusual (in American animation, anyway) to encounter a universe at once so convincing—on a molecular level—and so lyrical. It helps that the tone is one of longing. The movie starts on a note of horror that is, frankly, not so different from a Steven Seagal picture. Marlin and his wife move to new digs in the Great Barrier Reef (with a view of “the drop off”), lay 400 eggs, and, as they warmly contemplate their future, are set upon by a vicious predator. Marlin awakes to find his wife and 399 of his kids devoured; only one egg—Nemo—remains. True, in a Seagal flick, you’d see the carnage, plus the hero would spend the next 90 minutes trying to rip that predator’s head off. But the violence reverberates. (I didn’t see Finding Nemo with my exquisitely sensitive 5-year-old, but I wonder if she’ll get past this opening; I wouldn’t have at her age.)

The useful part of this appalling overture is that it offers a way to explore the theme of parental anxiety, which is thought to be at an all-time high despite the fact that child mortality (in this country, anyway) is at an all-time low. Marlin becomes the classic overprotective dad: He lives hidden in the anemones and monitors his precious Nemo’s every zip and plunge. The upshot, of course, is that Nemo becomes defiantly reckless, swimming up to a boat despite his father’s hysterical threats (“You put one fin on that boat …”) and getting himself netted—destined to be a birthday present for the destructive brace-face niece of a Sydney dentist.

Finding Nemo charts Marlin’s desperate journey to reach his son and Nemo’s journey to get back to his father, and I envy you the pleasure of meeting its cast for the first time. A skinny purple fish named Dory (with the voice of Ellen DeGeneres) flits along beside Marlin but is of limited usefulness: She suffers from short-term memory loss, and her interjections are both hilarious and, increasingly, poignantly absurdist. (DeGeneres’ Dory is one of the most inspired sidekicks a cartoon has ever had—and doubly refreshing after the wearying parade of Eddie Murphy/Billy Crystal wisecrack machines.) The miracles come—literally—in schools, among them a school of moonfish (with the voice of John Ratzenberger) that form different objects for fun and profit and a bunch (clutch? posse?) of turtles led by a 150-year-old named Crush with a surfer dude patois. (I wondered who the top-notch comedian doing Crush’s voice was; it’s the director, Stanton.) Most eye-popping of all is Marlin and Dory’s frantic burst through a pink forest of lethal jellyfish—a sequence of terrifying beauty.

Only one thing in the movie really bothered me: the sharks (led by Barry Humphries as the giant Bruce), who had formed a sort of 12-step recovery group for fish eaters. Now, I’m pretty sure that sharks that swore off fish would die of starvation: Unlike human 12-step programs, this seems to fly in the face of Darwinian logic. Of all the great vocal characterizations—there are wonderful turns by Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Vicki Lewis, Austin Pendleton, and Allison Janney as the fish in the dentist’s aquarium, plus Geoffrey Rush as an amiable Aussie pelican—the showstopper is Brooks, who hasn’t had a part this good since Lost in America (1985). His Marlin is tender, cranky, hysterical, yet somehow lucid. He’s never funnier than when informing other fish that being a clown fish doesn’t mean he’s funny. (“That’s a common misconception.”) He’s a straight man in the class of Jack Benny, but with oceanic depth.