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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003

Underwater underdogs

Hey, it's aquatic entertainment for everyone!

Finding Nemo

Rating: * * * 1/2(out of 5)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 7
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Pixar Animation Studios have been riding a wave of mega-hits since 1995's "Toy Story." Where once they were young upstarts challenging traditional Disney cartoons with a newfangled and unproven computer-animation approach, now Pixar's films are co-financed by Disney and they are setting new standards for the art form.

News photo
Bruce, a shark with issues, stalks Marlin and Dory in "Finding Nemo" COURTESY OF DISNEY/PIXAR; ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
News photo

So you've got to take Pixar impresario John Lasseter seriously when he says, as he did at a recent press conference in Tokyo, "We work to make the films truly entertaining to audiences of all ages: children and their parents, but also teenagers and young adults. We believe that you can make a film for everybody, and we work hard to do it."

That might sound like an embrace of McMovie formulaic blandness, but Pixar's output has been anything but. There was a time, not so long ago, when people would approach computer animation cautiously, wondering if the tech could live up to the hype. Pixar not only convinced skeptics that the new form was viable, but also managed to raise the bar with each film.

Animators of Pixar's latest, "Finding Nemo," push their visual imaginations to the limit in rendering an undersea world as wondrous and awe-inducing as, well, the real thing. Vast schools of shimmering diaphanous jellyfish . . . a sunken World War II wreck, its interior enshrouded in gloom . . . fangy, frightening fish that seem to be all mouth and no body . . . a gang of "surfing" turtles -- whatever the challenge, the Pixar animators prove they can handle it and then some. Simultaneously, they make us believe in the "reality" of the ocean we're viewing, while also throwing in all sorts of outlandish cartoon impossibility.

As he did with "A Bug's Life" in 1998, director Andrew Stanton turns to the natural world for inspiration and brings us a comic odyssey in which a clown-fish father must cross a vast ocean of peril to be reunited with his son. While Stanton has made a very funny film, he's given it an opening act that will stun the young ones as much as the death of Bambi's mother did to generations past.

Clown fish Marlin and his wife, Coral, are happily at home in their sea anemone with 400 eggs waiting to hatch. Their domestic bliss, however, is shattered in a flash when a rapacious barracuda snaps up the clown-fish brood and Coral in one savage chomp. Only Marlin and one egg survive; the grieving parent promises his sole unborn child, Nemo, "I'll never let anything happen to you."

Nemo is soon going to his first day of fish school, where he'll be mentored by a kindly spotted eagle ray. He is eager to make friends with the sea horses and octopuses and explore the ocean outside his anemone home, but Marlin is having anxiety fits. He drills Nemo with his question, "What's the one thing to remember about the ocean?" To which his son dutifully replies: "It's not safe." Nemo eventually chafes at his dad's restrictions, though, and swims off toward a boat at anchor, where he's suddenly netted by a diver and taken to parts unknown.

Thus begins Marlin's long journey to find his son. Joining him is Dory, a regal blue tang who has serious short-term memory problems. She thinks she knows which way Nemo was taken, only to forget it shortly thereafter; she sticks with Marlin largely because she can't remember what she was doing in the first place.

Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres do the voices for these two characters, and make for your typical odd couple: Brooks all kvetchy and uptight, DeGeneres all chirpy and flaky. Like Billy Crystal in "Monsters Inc.," however, the choice to have a nonstop motor-mouth in the lead role wears thin fast. As with "Monsters Inc.," the verbal wit here isn't half as inspired as the sight gags and a bit of a disappointment when compared to "Toy Story."

Better performances come from the more oddball voice-casting choices: Willem DaFoe is a hoot as the wizened Gil, a tropical fish kept in the dentist-office aquarium that Nemo winds up in. And it's more than a little bizarre to hear Geoffrey Rush's dulcet voice emerging from a pelican's beak. Give it up for Barry Humphries, though, whose thick Aussie accent is somehow perfect for the great white shark Bruce, who sports a maniacally friendly grin of razor-teeth as he introduces his "mates" -- a gang of reformed sharks who really, truly want to be friends with other fish. (Uh-huh.)

Bruce is a good example of the "Oprah-fication" -- so prevalent in contemporary America -- that has crept into much of the film. Almost all the characters seem to have some sort of victim/trauma condition: The sharks are on a 12-step recovery program; Dory suffers from memory loss; both Nemo and Gil have deficient fins; a cleaner shrimp suffers from obsessive-compulsive behavior disorder; and another little fish is even "H2O intolerant."

This sort of stuff is, on the one hand, a good, mild moral lesson for kids in understanding and accepting differences in others. But as comedy, it's far less successful. While these sort of jokes reflect the current U.S. fascination with pop-psych and personal "issues," they don't translate well, and they're not likely to age well either. Future generations for whom Alcoholics Anonymous or the phrase "playing the gender card" will be distant memories will probably be as mystified by this as kids today are by the depiction of Native Americans in "Peter Pan."

Instead of transient pop culture, solid humor comes out of characters and situations, but fortunately Stanton provides plenty of this. A scene in which Gil and the other aquarium fish attempt an elaborate escape from their tank is edited with the flash and precision of classic heist flicks, and is absolutely devious in its execution. The flocks of squabbling sea gulls -- who can only squawk one word: "Mine!" -- are also perfectly imagined (though their beady-eyed blankness seems to owe a bit to Nick Park's penguin in "Wallace & Gromit").

It's safe to say that adults will be entertained if they see this one. (And note: no songs! Pixar's best deviation from Disney formulas.) The kids, however, will be enthralled. The characters are endearing, their close escapes thrilling, and their underwater world is full of rich detail that will certainly hold up to repeat viewings -- a near certainty with any Pixar film. Don't wait for the DVD, though; treat yourself to full immersion on the big screen.

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