Movie review: 'Finding Nemo'

4 stars (out of 4)

Classic film eras tend to get recognized in retrospect while we take for granted timeless works passing before our eyes. So let's pause to appreciate what's been going on at Pixar Animation Studios.

The Pixar group has made five computer-animated features: "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc." and now "Finding Nemo." All of them are high quality, and I'd guess that each one, with the possible exception of "A Bug's Life," will be viewed decades later the way we now revere the classic Disney pictures.

Yes, the technology has improved from movie to movie - "Toy Story" looks stiff and flat compared with the vibrant images of "Finding Nemo" - but that's not the point. What's remarkable is how Pixar, under the leadership of John Lasseter (who directed the first three Pixar features and executive-produced "Finding Nemo"), has maintained such a consistent artistic vision and standard of writing. The movies may be made up of pixels, but the filmmaking springs from the minds and hearts of gifted storytellers. No computer could create such indelible characters as Buzz Lightyear and Woody; Mike Wazowski and Sully; and now, Marlin, Nemo and Dory.

Each feature exists in its own beautifully realized, fully populated world. "Finding Nemo," directed by "A Bug's Life" co-director Andrew Stanton (who has received a writing credit on each Pixar feature), mostly takes place in the ocean between the Great Barrier Reef and the coast of Sydney, and the scenery is as colorful and breathtaking as you're likely to see on any scuba-diving trip.

The story begins when Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) is just one of many glistening globules of roe being overseen by father fish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks, much funnier here than in "The In-Laws") and mother Coral (Elizabeth Perkins), who, in a dark plot turn borrowed from the Disney playbook, isn't around for long.

The orange-striped Marlin soon finds himself playing overprotective dad to his sole surviving offspring, who has one underdeveloped fin but an overdeveloped sense of curiosity. Nemo's first day of school (get it?) is more traumatic for father than for son, who relishes the chance to explore the ocean with a new group of sea friends.

But Nemo's demonstration of his swimming prowess and derring-do leads him into a diver's net and, ultimately, a Sydney dentist's aquarium. A distraught Marlin immediately sets out to rescue him.

The plot and structure aren't far from "Toy Story 2," which divided its attention between Woody in his new, captive environment and the Buzz-led rescue mission. "Finding Nemo" also shares that movie's smart, openhearted humor and "wow" factor. The key differences are the settings and the emotional charge of the father-child dynamic.

Marlin picks up a travel companion, a blue tang named Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres with a sweet loopiness), who's like a screwball comedy character by way of "Memento." Dory is as chipper and resourceful as can be given a short-term memory loss that leads her to forget key pieces of information at inopportune moments.

As the pair fumble their way toward Sydney Harbor, they encounter all sorts of surprising creatures and sea-nery. Three sharks provide laughs and scares as they try not to fall off the wagon of their 12-step program to eliminate fish from their diets. ("I am a nice shark," they chant.)

Marlin and Dory also cross paths with a blue whale; hungry seagulls; slacker sea turtles, who ride the current like underwater surfers; and a dazzling pack of pink jellyfish, who are suspended in the water like a glowing chandelier but pack a nasty sting.

The artists have risen to the challenge of filling the screen with evocative, highly detailed seascapes that rival the brightly hued wonders of real life, where the organic coexists with such manmade relics as military mines and downed submarines.

Back in a Sydney office building, Nemo adapts to his new in-a-fish-bowl existence with his tank mates, including a hardened black-and-white-striped veteran of the sea (as opposed to pet store), a blowfish prone to spontaneous inflation and a cleaning-obsessed shrimp. Amid the din of root canals, this group conceives hilariously intricate escape plans that might involve the aquarium's filtration system, an open window or a ride on "the porcelain express" (a.k.a., the toilet).You wouldn't figure on a realistic way for these two environments - ocean and aquarium - to be bridged, yet Stanton and co-writers Bob Peterson and David Reynolds do so in a way that makes perfect sense. The world of "Finding Nemo" is one in which all of nature is interconnected, from sympathetic pelicans to lethal angler fish.

Everything comes together in a way that's funny and emotionally potent. Credit again must go to that unified Pixar vision. These filmmakers know for whom they're making movies and the tone they wish to strike. There's no tension between the material geared for kids and parents, unlike some recent Disney animations as well as "Shrek." "Finding Nemo" and its Pixar predecessors tap into the shared gene among the kids and adults that delights in imagination-engaging, eye-tickling and wit-filled storytelling. You connect to these sea creatures as you rarely do with humans in big-screen adventures.The result: a true sunken treasure.

"Finding Nemo"
Directed by Andrew Stanton; written by Stanton, Bob Peterson, David Reynolds; photographed by Sharon Calahan, Jeremy Lasky; edited by David Ian Salter; production designed by Ralph Eggleston; music by Thomas Newman; produced by Graham Walters. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday, May 30. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: G.
Marlin - Albert Brooks
Dory - Ellen DeGeneres
Nemo - Alexander Gould
Gill - Willem Dafoe
Bloat - Brad Garrett
Peach - Allison Janney

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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