The majority of films categorized as “family movies” are actually children's movies that may or may not contain elements adults will also enjoy. One of the things that has made many of Pixar's animated features so special is that their “family movies” really are intended for the entire family. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Andrew Stanton's superb Finding Nemo, which takes two stories – one aimed directly at grown-ups, the other aimed directly at kids – and fuses them together in a film that proves consistently absorbing for viewers of all ages. It's sort of miraculous: the movie works well for just about anyone, but the way it works depends on the life experience you bring to the table.
The film centers on a fretful clownfish named Marlin (a perfectly-cast Albert Brooks, Defending Your Life) and his young son Nemo (Alexander Gould, How to Eat Fried Worms). It's time for Nemo to start going to school, but Marlin is worried that his son's smaller-than-average right fin – which makes swimming a little more difficult than it should be – will cause problems. Maybe the other kids will make fun of Nemo. Maybe Nemo will wander off during a field trip and get eaten by some horrible creature (a somber prologue reveals that Marlin's wife and the rest of his children were killed by a barracuda). Maybe Nemo isn't ready for this just yet.
Alas, all of Marlin's worst fears are realized when Nemo is scooped up by a diver and whisked away to Australia, where he's tossed into an aquarium in a dentist's office. There, the young clownfish makes a handful of new friends (including a world-weary moorish idol voiced by Willem Dafoe, a pufferfish voiced by Brad Garrett and a pink starfish voiced by Allison Janney), but is promptly informed that he'll eventually be given to a young girl named Darla, who has a reputation for being incredibly violent with her pets. So, Nemo and his new friends begin plotting a daring escape. Meanwhile, Marlin begins a desperate search for his son. He's aided by Dory (Ellen Degeneres, bringing her trademark enthusiasm to the proceedings), a cheerful regal tang who suffers from short-term memory loss (she's constantly re-introducing herself).
Nemo's side of the story is the one that will feel at least a little bit familiar to anyone who has watched their share of animated movies. He learns the valuable lessons that plenty of animated characters have learned: be brave, believe in yourself, never give up, etc. Familiar as these sentiments may be, Stanton manages to make them feel fresh by drawing Nemo with such tender specificity. He's a friendly, wide-eyed innocent, yes, but there are also shades of adolescent anger (there's a real sting to the early scene in which he tells Marlin that he hates him), insecurity and fear. The film affectionately reminds us that kids are often far more capable than adults believe them to be, if occasionally a bit less capable than they may think they are.
However, it's Marlin's side of the film that will really resonate with older viewers. His story is a heartwrenching parable about the importance of letting go: about being willing to accept the reality that bad things can happen to our children no matter how much we try to protect them, and that helping our children grow involves being willing to let them struggle from time to time. This is a challenging, complicated idea, and the film manages to explore it thoroughly without letting its heaviness overwhelm the film's consistently charming tone.
At the time it was released, Finding Nemo was lauded for its cutting-edge animation. Digital animation has evolved considerably since that time, but the movie is still a visually absorbing treat: while there are plenty of bright colors all over the place, the deep oceanic blues that dominate the film's color palette help give the film an atypically relaxing vibe. Of course, the storytelling helps: while there are lots of memorably goofy (and often genuinely hilarious) characters present – a surfer dude sea turtle (voiced by Stanton himself), a mostly-friendly shark (Barry Humphries, Nicholas Nickleby), a bubble-obsessed yellow tang (Stephen Root, Office Space), etc. - Stanton ensures that the film never feels overstuffed, defining the characters efficiently and giving the film time to breathe. Thomas Newman's score fits the movie like a glove, giving the diverse array of sights within the ocean an equally diverse array of sounds while constantly maintaining a certain level of transparent beauty.
While Finding Nemo certainly isn't the only Pixar movie to make me cry – “Making People Cry Since 1995” could easily be their official slogan – one of the things that makes it feel unique among their films is that it doesn't so much yank at your heartstrings as gently pluck them at precisely the right moments. There's a real elegance to the way it inserts that blink-and-you'll-miss-it flashback of Marlin looking at Nemo when he was still inside an egg, and to the way Dory's big monologue allows her to fully express the depth of her heartache without ever turning mawkish. The film has an ocean of great characters, some beautifully-explored ideas, a generous supply of big laughs and dazzling technical elements. It's top-tier Pixar.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2003