(SPOILERS) As the Pixar brand goes, Finding Nemo is perhaps their most formulaic movie. It should therefore, by rights, also be their most tired and repetitive in retrospect, particularly as it’s their most overt example of studio hands (co-directors Andrew Stanton, who also gets sole screenplay credit, and Lee Unkrich) working through the tribulations of parentage, at least until Inside Out came along. There is a cumulative feeling at times that the studio is too honed, too precise and meticulous in hitting all its carefully calculated beats, such that, no matter how individuated the subject matter, the emotional content tends to be unvaried and identikit (the most obvious fall out of this being The Good Dinosaur). That’s probably partly because other studios are less inclined to foreground such content, more equivocal about wearing their hearts on their sleeves. It’s also because the John Lasseter command desk is so hawk-like in its oversight, even Jeffrey Katzenberg might blanche. But Finding Nemo rides this wave of stock-in-trades so well, and with such accompanying zest, while simultaneously providing a breathlessly non-stop rollercoaster ride, it’s impossible to resist.
Nemo wouldn’t quite sit at the top of my Pixar pile (the trio of WALL-E, The Incredibles and Ratatouille can be found there) but it’s near enough, thanks to a screenplay that is not only wall-to-wall with inimitable supporting characters, but also ensures the central ones are engaging and well-matched. Okay, Nemo himself is pretty much your classic unreconstituted cute Disney muffin, the baby elephant from The Jungle Book given his own movie, but even he isn’t too cute to bear. And Marlin’s over-protective father schtick might be just a little too over-exerted, if not for being voiced by Albert Brooks, who manages to be effortlessly sarcastic and earnestly diligent within the space of a breath. The picture, like many a Disney classic, opens dramatically with high tragedy, so providing an effective grounding for Marlin’s angst. And, over-earnest as he is, he’s proven right to be concerned, but as is always the way, the journey is about his (re-) opening up to life rather than his son learning caution.
It’s to the credit of Stanton and Unkrich that they don’t pause long enough for the sentiments to be worked over. I suspect they would indulge themselves, were the picture made now (Finding Dory, certainly, is more indulgent in that sphere). There’s a winning desire to make this a rousing adventure first and underpinned by a genuinely-felt story second (or rather, it is understood that the genuinely-felt story is the bedrock, and once established the makers get to be as frivolous as they like), and I suspect that’s why it remained top of the Pixar roost for such a long time. For me, the sincerity of Toy Story can get a bit ripe at times (I think that’s mostly the stomach-churning Randy Newman factor, to be honest), whereas Nemo rarely congratulates itself over its own well-meaning.
Much of the picture’s success is down to the perfectly batty vocal performance of Ellen DeGeneres, whose Dory has an inspired, stream-of-consciousness looseness, aided and abetted by perfect odd-couple pairing with Brooks; one is utterly guileless, the other hopelessly guarded and highly-strung. It’s a classic double-act. And, if the picture follows the quest format more doggedly and overtly than most, it does so with such acumen for each new incident it’s impossible not to be swept along.
At times too, Nemo offers genuinely outstanding moments straddling tension and humour unequalled in the Pixar canon, from the onset of a sea of jellyfish to the encounter with an angler, and a sperm whale (“Wow, I wish I could speak whale”), or the beautifully sustained tension/hilarity with a shark self-help group abstaining from eating fish. Voiced by Barry Humphries, Bruce is a magnificently gregarious creation, even when fighting bloodthirsty urges.
If there’s occasionally a note of too-easy familiarity (the Stanton-voiced stoner turtle Crush), there’s also giddy inspiration: the beady eyed seagulls out of an Aardman production, all repeating “Mine!” ad infinitum (and given a The Birds-style gathering effect; not the only Hitchcock reference, see below), Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), the pelican who continually finds his way into the dentist’s surgery (my favourite sequence may be the pandemonium he causes there, fully unleashed, the dentist at a loss as to explain what is going on) and the Mission: Impossible poignant presence of Willem Dafoe as the tank-bound Gill, desperate to escape but having to remind himself there are limits. The reliance on Antipodean accents is also very welcome, providing a splash of colour and distinctive streak of humour.
Stanton even seems conscious that he may be over-doing his cathartic parental outpouring, hence the antidote to the harmless, lovable offspring in hideous nightmare child Darla, the would-be recipient of Nemo, introduced with Psycho strings as the kind of kid you absolutely do not trust with a pet (the kind whose idea of stroking a cat is to see how far it will stretch before breaking).
And, as if it needs saying, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. It may be 13 years since this came out, but to my eye it hasn’t aged a day (which can’t be said for Toy Story, showing how far the studio came in only eight years, and how advances since then have been subtler). Did Finding Nemo need a sequel? Absolutely not, but on the other hand it’s not one you think instantly think would be spoil by revisiting. That said, its inarguable that, say, the run of substandard Shrek sequels negatively impacted what was a highly accomplished original. Coming Finding Fishy Four, everyone may have concluded Pixar should have left well alone.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.