Monday, June 22, 2009

Finding Nemo (2003, dir. Andrew Stanton)

Coming soon to the Pixar Directrospective at InReviewOnline

For my money, Finding Nemo is simply the best in the Disney/Pixar cannon. It's that perfect mix of adventure, laughs, and emotional depth, layered with transcendent moments of discovery. Plus, Ellen Degeneres is hilarious.

Disney films are notoriously preachy, and in a way, Nemo is no exception. Children will learn to believe in themselves, parents will learn how to let go, and we'll all learn the meaning of trust and perseverance. And while most Hollywood films would parlay those trite themes into a predictably stodgy family vehicle, Nemo manages to imbue them with genuine sincerity; writer/director Andrew Stanton ineffably delivers a film greater than the sum of its parts (a feat he'll manage again 5 years later with WALL-E).

Finding Nemo's narrative threads two parallel stories; Nemo, a young clownfish, gets captured by divers on his first day of school. He winds up in a dentist's aquarium in Sydney, Australia, but has only days until he'll be given to the dentist's niece - a notorious fish-killer. Meanwhile, his father Marlin (Albert Brooks) journeys from the reef to Sydney, enlisting the help of Dori (Ellen Degenerous), a regal tang suffering from short-term memory loss. We jump back and forth between these two stories throughout the film, building tension as both Nemo and Marlin race against time. We also meet several memorable supporting characters along the way, most notably Willem Defoe's performance as Gil, the escape-obsessed leader of the aquarium.

On its own, this multi-layered narrative would already make for an exciting family adventure, but Stanton isn't content with mere storytelling. On Nemo's first day of school, he rides through the reef with his classmates on the back of Mr. Ray, their manta-ray teacher. Ray sings one of his many impromptu science lessons, and his friends catch up on their gossip. Nemo ignores them all; he's seeing the reef for the first time. The camera gracefully pans away from the class, sweeping across the reef. The song and chatter fade, and Thomas Newman's Oscar-nominated score subtly swells. And for a time, we forget about the story and experience Nemo's discovery, the awe and the majesty of the reef. The simplicity and transcendent beauty of moments like this transform Finding Nemo from a delightful family adventure into something much less common in the Hollywood arena: cinema.

As much as I love this movie, I have to admit that without Ellen Degeneres's performance, the entertainment aspect of this film would have seriously suffered. She steals at least half of the film's quotable dialogue, and her delivery is impeccable, playing comic foil to Albert Brook's straight man. Looking over her filmography, I'm shocked by how much her talents have been underutilized. She hasn't made any films since Nemo, and it seems that her largest film role before Nemo was playing the reality-TV producer in the mostly unwatchable EdTV. What gives, Hollywood? Throw this woman some roles!

Final Thought: Nemo miraculously juggles a multi-threaded narrative, a large supporting cast, and dangerously trite themes into an oft-hilarious and surprisingly sincere film.

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