GREAT FILMS: Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo (USA, 2003)
Directed by Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich
Starring Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe 

IMDb Top 250: #174 (19/1/14)

Film reviewers have to walk a very difficult tightrope when describing films that they love. People who value our opinions, for whatever reasons, expect a level of passion and detailed knowledge to convince them how and when to spend their hard-earned money, and we work hard to provide such knowledge and passion on a regular basis. But often a critic will revert to childhood nostalgia or some other form of sentiment to unconvincingly gloss over flaws which to anyone else are in plain sight.
I find myself in this position with regard to Finding Nemo, a film I saw twice in cinemas during its long theatrical run and which I have always held in high regard. Having not seen it for several years, and caught up with most of PIXAR's back catalogue outside of it, I had trepidations about revisiting it, in case my love for it turned out to be rooted purely in nostalgia. Fortunately, my fears have all been laid to rest by the simple fact that Finding Nemo is a truly great film.
For starters, the film is a fantastic technical accomplishment. Animation's ability to put anything on screen is often bizarrely used to belittle its achievements: we assume that just because almost everything can be done, that therefore it's very easy to do anything. But there is nothing easy or lazy about Finding Nemo's aesthetics: they are the product of years of hard work and research, by highly talented craftsman whose craft and affection show through.
John Lasseter, PIXAR's head honcho and the executive producer, has always been a fan of hands-on research. Once the project had been green-lit, he demanded that everyone working on the film got certified at scuba diving, and organised numerous diving trips to allow his animators to study fish up close in their natural environment. As well as getting a mechanical feel for this (i.e. how things move differently in water compared to in air), much of their findings ended up in the films' characters. Clown fish are naturally shy creatures who rarely come out of the anemones, adding believability to Albert Brooks' portrayal of Marlin.
The visuals of Finding Nemo are beautiful on every level. Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich bring us a world of rich colour and many textured shades, all the while convincing us that we are underwater. They pay particular attention to the way that light reflects and refracts as it moves from the surface through the denser water, adjusting the colour palette ever so subtly whenever we move into deeper territories. Certain mechanics are altered, to enable characters to cry or bleed in ways we would recognise, but overall this is both believable and realistic.
In addition to its spectacular visuals, Finding Nemo is a brilliant example of how to handle multiple story-lines on screen. Like Toy Story 2 before it, there is not a single edit which is out of place, and not a single section that runs on too long. The transitions between one group of characters and another group are beautifully judged; it's never left so long that it feels like we are neglecting a character, or so short that it feels desperate.
This in turn lifts the story of Finding Nemo from something seemingly simple to feeling more complex and layered. It is at its most basic level a road movie, with two characters on a long journey from A to B, encountering many strange creatures and events along the way, some of which are helpful, some potentially harmful. In weaker hands the film would either feel overly long and dull or could become very episodic, with the set-pieces not building to a resonant climax. But this is PIXAR, and they know a thing or two about raising the stakes.
The film has many memorable moments, each of which feel like an escalation from the previous one. The first time we meet Bruce the shark, it's a big deal, but after the underwater mines blow up and the angler fish arrives, he seems a walk in the park by comparison. The same goes for the jellyfish, the whale and finally the fishing boat which Marlin and Dory run into, with the mask and its message tying everything together very nicely.
Running through Finding Nemo is the theme of letting go, specifically parents letting go of their children and allow them to have their own adventures. Marlin is overprotective of his son Nemo because of the loss of his wife and other babies in the opening scene - an attitude consolidated by his son's birth defect (the "lucky fin"). By being stifled for so long, Nemo is compelled to disobey after his very first taste of the outside world, and quickly discovers how frightening it can be. As the father journeys to find his son, both discover that there are times when letting go and trusting others is the only way to go.
There is a comparison in this regard with Gravity, which has just garnered 11 BAFTA nominations and a further 10 for the Oscars. Regardless of its eventual performance at either ceremony, Finding Nemo (itself an Oscar winner) does a much better job at conveying this underlying theme. While their stories may seem equally straightforward on paper, the storytelling here is better, the characters are more rounded, and there is less of an overwhelming sense of effects cornering the market for innovation. As great as the visuals here are, they do not distract from the story as those in Gravity often did.
Equally, while Gravity's protagonists were overly conventional, the characters in Finding Nemo are as rounded and compelling as we have come to expect from PIXAR. Marlin's conservative nature is rooted in good intentions, and he has qualities that we would recognise in parents we know and admire. While Dreamworks might play Dory's short-term memory loss purely for laughs, here it both lightens the mood and deepens her character. Dory has a pathos to her which comes to a head when she and Marlin part ways, making her scatterbrained moments all the more endearing.
In addition to its parental themes, Finding Nemo also has a subtext about overcoming disability. Both Nemo and Gill have fins which are damaged or underdeveloped in some way, and both are initially defined by them; Nemo's dad smothers him because of it, while Gill wears his as a battle scar and thereby seems all the more determined to escape. Both characters eventually overcome their limitations in the physical act of escaping, but Nemo goes one further in refusing to let it prevent him live life to the full. As soon as he gets home, he goes straight back out to explore the open ocean.
Finding Nemo is also brilliant at balancing its tone. There are a lot of dark and scary moments, such as the obstacles listed before, and the film is occasionally a little too blatant in reinforcing the horror tone, with obvious references to The Shining in Bruce's attack and Psycho in the scenes with Darla. But elsewhere the film is a barrel of laughs, whether it's Crush's spaced-out surfer ramblings, Dory's forgetfulness or the various exploits of the Tank Gang. It's a very funny film for all the family which balances light and dark superbly.
The voice acting on Finding Nemo is great, as we've come to expect. Albert Brooks is great as Marlin, using his quivering voice to bring the characters' anxieties to the foreground. Ellen DeGeneres is inspired as Dory, talking as quickly and as boisterously as she does on her talk show but still managing to pull things back during the sadder moments. Barry Humphries is very well-cast as Bruce, pulling off his introduction with great aplomb, and Alexander Gould does a good job with the title character. Even Willem Dafoe, who can sometimes drift into pantomime, is very convincing as the raspy, determined Gill.
Finding Nemo is a truly great film which sits alongside Monsters, Inc. as one of the high points of PIXAR's output. While it doesn't have quite the emotional depth or narrative complexity of the Toy Story films, it is very hard to find any other fault with it. It's a beautifully-made, beautifully-acted, beautifully-written film which will continue to enchant audiences for decades to come. One only hopes that the upcoming sequel came live up to the same standards.


NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)