Finding Nemo (Disney Pixar - 2003)

Finding Nemo is a testament to why animated films (computer or otherwise) exist. It is also a testament to Pixar Studios' continuing reign over the still-growing medium. With five films under its belt, and not a single one of them short of amazing, Pixar is shaping up to a very fine reputation indeed: that of an entertainment factory whose products seem anything but factory-made.

Like all good children's films, Finding Nemo should hit home with any audience. It has themes that adults can relate to, and even features a parent as its main star. That parent is Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), a fish who's overprotective of his one and only offspring, Nemo (Alexander Gould). This is because, some years ago, Marlin lost his wife and his three hundred or so other offspring, in a harrowing prologue that reminds us just how cruel nature can be.

Nemo also has a slight disability -- one of fins (his "lucky" fin) is smaller and weaker than the other, adding to his father's anxiety when Nemo ventures into a dangerous area with his classmates. It's the edge of a submerged cliff, overlooking the vastness of the ocean beyond. Nemo, ever the rebel, swims toward the open sea and is captured by a deep-sea diver. As it turns out, Nemo's fate isn't so bad initially: he's put in an aquarium inside a dentist's office overlooking the Sydney harbour, where he befriends an eclectic assortment of other captured species trying to escape. Meanwhile, Marlin embarks on a heroic and seemingly impossible quest to find his lost son. He finds an unlikely companion in Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres), a fish who suffers from short-term memory loss.

This film is, not surprisingly, Pixar's crowning achievement in the department of computer animation. Computer technology seems to get better every year, and Finding Nemo is no exception to the trend. Nemo's underwater universe is a marvel to look at it, featuring everything from vast coral reefs to minefields to photorealistic sunken ships -- and those are just the locales. What is especially amazing is the effort made by the creators to realize the potential of an underwater setting. There haven't been that many underwater movies (The Abyss comes to mind, but that film was great for entirely different reasons) and thus everything here comes off as brand new and inspired-looking, feeding upon both our knowledge of the ocean and our idealized perceptions of what goes on within.

This submerged cosmos is, above all, evocative of the variety that characterizes any convincing world, filled with places that stir different emotional responses. Nemo's home and "school" exude warmth and comfort, while the sight of the ocean fills us with a slightly agoraphobic sense of awe, and the minefields with a sense of dread. A sequence where Marlin and Dory ride upon the backs of sea turtles has an almost rapturous elegance; when the fish encounter an armada of silent, floating jellyfish, their elegance is downright menacing. The film has a scope that reflects our world, but also an enchanting vision that transcends it, drawing us into its mysterious, dream-like realm and filling us with wonder.

The story itself lacks the sheer creativity of Monsters Inc. and it doesn't raise nearly as many deep questions as Toy Story 2 does, but these are hardly deficiencies when the film is as colourful, as energetic, and as funny as Finding Nemo. The essence of the plot -- a mostly underwater rescue mission -- is largely a vehicle that allows the filmmakers to move from one impressive set piece to the next while sliding a few comic gags in between. I suspect, though, that none of these would be as convincing if it weren't for the characters, all of whom evoke a great deal of empathy; and, although their personalities do recall other creatures from all across the Disney spectrum, these are unique enough that they seem fresh instead of clichéd (the same cannot be said for most characters in any kind of film.)

Marlin -- the neurotic hero -- is probably the most traditional character of the lot, but it's easy to sympathize with him. Like Toy Story 2, much of the film's conflict is internal and centred around Marlin's personality as he struggles to come to terms with his loss. This makes his character vulnerable, which makes him interesting. As Marlin's sidekick, Dory is a real gem. She's practically insane, and yet the filmmakers somehow manage to make her not only the film's vital comic centre, but also its heart as well, without sacrificing the character's credibility as a fish who can't remember anything for long. Of particular note is her chemistry with Marlin, which has no hint of romance and yet feels completely organic. The writers wisely use their two conflicting personalities to ignite sparks without resorting to any arbitrary male-female bonding tricks: Dory is an infectiously cheerful fish who can't remember any of her worries, while Marlin spends his life haunted by memory.

Special mention must go to the angelfish named Gill, voiced by Willem Dafoe, the literally scarred veteran who befriends Nemo in the fishtank. He's the quietly charismatic sort who, unlike Marlin, encourages Nemo to seize his potential. When Nemo is trapped, Gill refuses to let the gang help him out, thereby forcing Nemo to swim out himself. He preaches the "if you believe it, you can do it" philosophy, but he's not the perfect father-figure either: his obsessive streak puts Nemo in danger during the film's most exciting sequence, which I will not give away here. Suffice to say, I enjoyed these subtle ambiguities, and the implication that while restraining a child could be demoralizing, pushing him too far might have equally serious consequences. I also liked how the writers refused to turn Gill into a villain (oddly enough, his wild ideas made me think of a much more somber Flik from A Bug's Life), and I liked how Nemo comes to his conclusions about his father of his own accord, without manipulation from the outside.

Finding Nemo is a delicious and spectacular film, one of the best mainstream films I've seen all year. This is the kind of film that no live action set could produce. There is so much more I go on about -- from the sharks' parody of support groups, to the Australian pelican voiced by Geoffrey Rush, to the very big whale, to the climax that will have you seriously reconsidering your diet out of sympathy -- but that would be ruining half the fun. My recommendation: dive in and enjoy!

[Kevin Lau]