Fun family fish fare

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In the first part of the new animated feature Finding Nemo, there’s a thrilling, frightening sequence wherein the hero, a clownfish named Marlin (endearingly voiced by Albert Brooks), and his scatterbrained pal, a blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), go racing after Marlin’s only son, Nemo (Alexander Gould), a cute boy with a gimpy fin who’s been abducted by a deep-sea-diving dentist who collects tropical fish. Chasing after the dentist’s motorboat, they rise to the surface and look around. They keep running out of breath and having to duck down beneath the water to get some air—the reverse of what happens in live-action movies when a human hero dives into the ocean looking for someone who’s fallen overboard.

It’s just one grace note in an abduction sequence composed and edited with a ruthless clarity that D.W. Griffith might have admired, but it’s key to understanding what separates Pixar, the company that produced Finding Nemo, from almost any other commercial animation company working today. They think through their premises, finding cartoon equivalents for real things; like all true artists, they sweat the small stuff. Nemo continues the Pixar tradition of giving charmingly contemporary suburban characteristics to nonhuman things. (Yes, it’s a gimmick—but it’s a gimmick that provokes the audience into seeing their world in surprising new ways, like Picasso’s putting two eyes on one side of a subject’s face.)

This time, Pixar’s environment is the ocean, and the characters are fish instead of toys, bugs or monsters. As always, the real subject is the delicate bond between parents and children. Director Andrew Stanton, co-director Lee Unkrich and their school of animators and voice actors work together like Spielberg in full-on popcorn mode, mixing old-school artistry, up-to-the-minute technology and primal emotions with jokes that, though older than the Great Barrier Reef, rarely fail to give kids the giggles. It’s a great movie—probably the funniest animated feature since Monsters, Inc., and the most adroit mix of slapstick, sentiment and social commentary since Toy Story 2.

Like every Pixar movie, Nemo revolves around the attempts to rescue a character that has been abducted or otherwise removed from his home. It divides its time evenly between Marlin, the father, and Nemo, the son. Marlin teams up with Dory, a pop-eyed goofball with severe short-term memory problems, to find his boy, the sole survivor of a long-ago attack by a predator that claimed the lives of Marlin’s wife and Nemo’s 399 siblings. (The Pixar folks have described Nemo as "Bambi underwater," and its opening sequence, while mercifully short, rivals the killing of Bambi’s mother in its power to disturb; the predator is at first glimpsed from a long distance, hovering in the open with a blank expression, like a stalking monster from a John Carpenter flick.)

Marlin’s journey is episodic, at times almost Homeric, despite all the poop jokes. Tracking the dentist to Sidney via an address written on the strap of a pair of lost goggles, the brave little fishies encounter more colorful friends and foes than can be listed here. My favorites are a flock of single-mindedly ravenous gulls, a bale of sea turtles who talk in surf slang and a trio of sharks who profess to be reformed fish-eaters, and hold 12-step meetings in a sunken submarine ringed by mines.

Nemo, meanwhile, is imprisoned in a fishtank back in the dentist’s office, awaiting the day when the dentist’s niece, a hideous little goon who’s notorious for shaking fish to death inside plastic bags, arrives to take him away. This part of the movie is a goof on prison flicks. Nemo’s compatriots include Allison Janney’s watchful starfish, Brad Garrett’s neurotic, very emotional puffer fish and Willem Dafoe’s Gill, a scarred moorish idol who’s hatched an escape plan but can’t carry it out without help from a fish small enough to crawl through the tank’s filtration system. (Dafoe played the same part in Steve Buscemi’s little-seen prison drama Animal Factory—a grizzled mentor to a kindhearted younger inmate.)

There’s more going on in Nemo than thrills and laughs, but as always, the Pixar folks are such adept entertainers that most viewers (and most critics) probably won’t notice. Like the plot of Holes, Nemo’s stint in the dentist’s tank suggests that prisons are more about power than justice, and that captivity breeds insanity. "Fish aren’t meant to be in a box, kid," says Gill. "It does things to you."

The script, credited to Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds, also chides Baby Boomer and post-Boomer parents who devote every waking moment to insulating their kids against "danger"—the modern parent’s synonym for "experience." ("I’m H2O-intolerant," chirps a classmate of Nemo’s.)

This funny-scary fish tale begins after Nemo disobeys his dad and swims away from his school to check out the dentist’s boat. But this incident marks the beginning, not the end, of the movie’s lesson. "I promised him I’d never let anything happen to him," Marlin confesses to Dory, who replies, "That’s a funny thing to promise." Nemo ultimately emerges from his experience a stronger, smarter fish; so does Marlin, a loving parent who must summon the emotional strength to let go and let the boy find his own way in the world. Fish gotta swim.

Finding Nemo
Directed by Andrew Stanton


Dive In. Adults who crave aquatic symbolism but don’t dig talking fish should check out the 1968 Frank Perry film The Swimmer. One of my very favorite dramas, it’s an eerie, moving adaptation of John Cheever’s short story, now showing at Two Boots Pioneer Theater in a newly restored print. Burt Lancaster is superb as the swimtrunk-clad fortysomething suburban dad literally swimming his way across his suburb for reasons that are as mysterious to him as they are to everybody else. The generational flipside of The Graduate, the movie hovers between sociological precision and mythic abstraction. The finale image is a heartbreaker.

See the movie, buy the car. The Italian Job, about an Italian heist that ends in a double-cross that leads to a payback heist in Los Angeles, is no great shakes as a thriller. A remake of a late-60s Euro-swank thriller, it’s more about jive-ass attitude than suspense, and it probably wouldn’t have been made without the cult success of films by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, which every red-blooded heterosexual male actor in Hollywood would kill to be in. (Guns, cash, designer clothes, kiss-off dialogue; what’s not to like?) Director F. Gary Gray (Set It Off) stages pretty good action scenes, but because they lack a strong sense of spatial geography, they’re not spine-tinglers. The predictably mismatched cast of glamorous actors (boring blank Mark Wahlberg’s alleged mastermind; Ed Norton’s sullen second-in-command; Donald Suthlerland’s kindly, clearly doomed mentor; Charlize Theron’s improbably shapely safecracker; Guy Ritchie vet Jason Statham’s hostile, womanizing wheel-man; a half-deaf explosives expert played, appropriately, by Mos Def) is competent enough. But after a while, you start wondering when the stars will show up. They arrive in the form of merchandise—everything from brand-name security systems to stereo components to the tiny, superhip Mini Cooper, to Pepsi One, which contributes a billboard that plays a shamelessly pivotal role in the film’s nifty final chase. The product-placed goods are photographed as lovingly as a Julia Roberts shopping trip. Tellingly, in the press kit, the Mini gets a longer bio than any of the top-billed actors. It’s hard to get outraged about ads before movies in an era of movies-as-ads.

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