- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

The Pixar animation studio is bound to misfire one of these days, but its latest triumph, “Finding Nemo,” makes it 5-for-5; this apparatus hasn’t faltered since entering the feature marketplace and giving computer animation prompt entertainment credibility with “Toy Story” in 1995.

“Nemo” is a delightful heroic fable about paternal love. This fundamental instinct motivates a desperate, widowed, indomitably protective clownfish named Marlin, voiced with comic perfection by Albert Brooks, to swim across Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in search of his lost offspring, Nemo. Luckily, the little fellow has survived. Sort of a plucky kindergartner, distinguished in part by an undersized fin, Nemo has been transported to the office aquarium of a dentist in Sydney’s harbor.

Marlin is assisted in his search by a very useful clue and a fitfully helpful traveling companion, a blue tang named Dory, who suffers short-term memory lapses. Nemo fortunately is interned with a batch of die-hard escape plotters, led by a battle-hardened moorish idol named Gill.

These two elegantly symmetrical stories unfold in artfully alternating episodes: Two fish must cope with repeated perils across open seas while a tankful of fish struggle to get away from watery confinement in a display case situated within sight of the harbor. The movie probably alternates between Marlin and Dory in the ocean and Nemo in the office seven or eight times. After a while, even the shifts acquire a singular fascination and formal beauty.

What might prove structurally cumbersome in certain hands becomes a pretext for recurrent and amusing virtuosity in the Pixar think tank. From the outset, the studio has demonstrated sounder screenwriting practices than Hollywood at large cares to encourage anymore. Inspired imitation explains some of the structural sturdiness: it didn’t harm “A Bug’s Life” to borrow astutely from “Seven Samurai.” “Finding Nemo” is likely to be revered in part because it’s the latest variation on “The Searchers.” Indeed, a case can be made that it’s also a considerable improvement on “The Searchers.”

Stories about the search for lost kin, or comrades, enjoy an inherent edge in terms of suspense and emotional appeal. The Pixar flair gives this always promising outline a sumptuous pictorial and humorous rendering. Going underwater allows the illustrators to exploit marine life with a superlative blend of cartoon wonder and playfulness. There are so many bizarre or dazzling fish species to be encountered in the typical major aquarium or underwater documentary that Pixar exaggerations never seem beyond the realm of possibility.

The characters, of course, are exaggerations of human nature. In some cases, they were created with a specific personality in mind. Director-screenwriter Andrew Stanton based Dory on Ellen DeGeneres, as a matter of fact. The little fish’s chattiness and memory losses were suggested by the frequency with which the “Ellen” sitcom heroine tended to change her mind while babbling and rationalizing. I suppose other actresses could double Dory, but it obviously makes sense to recruit the prototype. Better yet, the distinctive neurotic inflections and timidities of Miss DeGeneres and Mr. Brooks weather a long movie voyage without stale letdowns.

Marlin is an affectionate caricature of apprehensive parents. The prologue gives him plenty of traumatic cause for apprehension by devastating his immediate family and obliging him to be mother and father to Nemo, a tiny and miraculous survivor. However, the movie’s point is that children can’t be shielded forever from heroic tests of their own. Marlin’s admonition, “Play on the sponge beds,” goes disregarded as soon as Nemo acquires playmates keen on competing with each other and wandering away from the playground.

The therapeutic culture gets a going-over from a trio of sharks dominated by a great white named Bruce, dubbed by Barry Humphries. He has sidekicks, spoken by Eric Bana and Bruce Spence, who need to intervene whenever Bruce feels a feeding frenzy coming on. It’s a difficult mood to appease. Marlin and Dory get bullied into attending one of the sharks’ self- improvement meetings, held precariously among rusting mines and warships. Geoffrey Rush is entrusted with a noble pelican named Nigel, so impressed with tales of Marlin’s quest that he seizes the opportunity to rescue it at a crucial juncture.

Families in search of a good time and positive reinforcement need look no further this summer. “Finding Nemo” is as imaginative and bighearted as the medium gets. It’s also the best movie of the year so far. Dive in and let the Pixar celebration of life along the eastern Australian current lift your spirits.

****

TITLE: “Finding Nemo”

RATING: G (Fleeting comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Andrew Stanton. Co-directed by Lee Unkrich. Produced by Graham Walters. Executive producer: John Lasseter. Screenplay by Mr. Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds. Production design by Ralph Eggleston. Cinematography by Sharon Calahan and Jeremy Lasky. Supervising animator: Dylan Brown. Supervising technical director: Oren Jacob. Film editing by David Ian Salter. Music by Thomas Newman.

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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