What would Disney do without Pixar? With its last few films doing either moderately well ("Lilo and Stitch") or simply falling flat on their faces (an entire department of the Disney Animation department had to be shut down because of the losses from "Treasure Planet"), the only thing that Disney has really been able to rely on recently is Pixar's wonderful computer-animated films. Each one has either been a complete masterpiece or a terrific one-and-a-half hour entertainment, all reviving animation for a third "golden age" (the first would being in the late thirties/early forties when Disney first started creating, the second in the mid-eighties to early nineties with films like "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King"). Only filmmakers working with anime (a Japanese style of animation) have offered anything in recent years comparable to or beyond what Pixar is capable of.
But for some reason, I had a funny feeling about "Finding Nemo". When the original teaser trailer premiered, I was incredibly disappointed. Not only was it just not funny, but the animation, while nice, didn't seem like anything special. The finished product certainly put me in my place. Not only is "Finding Nemo" good, it may just be my favorite of the five Pixar films; it's also one of the funniest films I've seen in a long, long time.
The film opens with a "Bambi"-style scare: Marlin (Albert Brooks) loses both his wife, Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) and 399 of his 400 developing eggs to a vicious barracuda. The one that survives, he names what Coral would've named him: Nemo. A few years later, it's Nemo's (Alexander Gould) first day at school. Marlin is a nervous wreck; the teacher, Mr. Ray (Bob Peterson III), is taking the class to the "dropoff", the edge of their community that leads into the deeper ocean. He rushes to the scene to try and prevent Nemo from going. Nemo, furious at his dad's uptight attitude, goes too close to a boat in an effort to rebel. Unfortunately, a group of humans capture Nemo and take him away. Marlin, unable to catch up with the boat, gets help from Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a fish with short-term memory loss that could give "Memento"'s Leonard Shelby a run for his money. The two begin on an "Odyssey"-style quest to find Nemo.
Meanwhile, Nemo is taken to a dentist's office somewhere in Sydney. He's in a fish tank with a plethora of other fish: Bloat, a blowfish (Brad Garrett), Peach, the lookout (a starfish, voiced by Allison Janney), Gurgle (Austin Pendleton), Bubbles, who has an addiction to fish-tank bubbles (Stephen Root), Deb, who has an imaginary sister that exists in her reflection on the tank (Vicki Lewis), Jacques, a shrimp with an obsession with cleanliness (Joe Ranft), and Gill, a reclusive fish with a "tough-guy" attitude (Willem Dafoe). Occasionally, they get a visit from Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), a pelican who participates in their favorite pastime: watching and giving a running commentary on dental operations. They all come from different places ("Ebay!" one shouts joyously), but only one other calls the ocean his home: Gill. With the news that Nemo will be a present for Darla, the dentist's niece who has a reputation for killing fish, Gill begins to present a plan that could bring them all back to the ocean.
"Finding Nemo" is not the subtlest film Pixar has ever made (certainly "Monsters Inc." is much more nuanced), but it is without a doubt the funniest. One could almost say that this is an underwater road trip; it plays out almost like a sketch comedy, with each new episode introducing fresh, hilarious characters that each contribute to pack "Nemo" with as much laughs as humanly possible. There's not a single uninteresting personality in the entire movie. While there's a lot of humor for the kids, it's never very stupid; no cheap shots here, and every single joke is laced with plenty of nice little details that only an older audience would notice.
Something also has to be said for the cast that brings a screenplay like this to life: each brings a unique take to their various roles, and some of the most unlikely candidates (such as Willem Dafoe) truly let themselves loose. Special attention, however, should be paid to Ellen DeGeneres' Dory. She makes Dory her own, and becomes the life of the party; DeGeneres has found a comeback in the least likely of places.
Also unlikely is this: "Finding Nemo" is as intrinsically beautiful a visual experience you're likely to find all year. Each shot is filmed in a surreal, underwater haze that will pull you in (it's actually a little bit strange when the camera goes above the surface and the haze disappears). Not only this, but each character is surprisingly expressive; somehow the animators have found a way to transfer some essential element of each actor's physiognomy onto tiny little fish. Emblazoned with color and life, "Finding Nemo" just acts as further proof that Pixar is doing some of the only exciting computer generated work in film today. No, scratch that. Pixar is not only doing great animated work, but as every other crappy summer film has come and gone, "Nemo" still stays in multiplexes: Pixar has become one of the very few sure things in all of mainstream Hollywood.