Movie Review: FINDING NEMO Represents Pixar in Transition

Movie Review: FINDING NEMO Represents Pixar in Transition

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Pixar\’s Finding Nemo represented the studio\’s big watershed moment, though I suspect you\’d be hard-pressed to find anyone aware of that fact in 2003 (I include myself amongst the ignorant masses).  See, the film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, and while Pixar was no stranger to Oscar – the short features “Luxo Jr.,” “Tin Toy,” “Geri\’s Game,” and “For the Birds” each got the Academy\’s blessings – the studio had never before received such an honor for one of its full-length pictures.  Think about that for a second.  Pixar wasn\’t just developing new technology or making kids\’ movies that adults could stomach; it was making great movies, full stop.

How do I know that?  Finding Nemo won an Oscar.  That\’s how I know that.

And in its broad strokes, Finding Nemo feels more like the kind of serious fare that usually does win Oscars.  Previous Pixar favorites such as the two Toy Stories, A Bug\’s Life, and Monsters, Inc. all had moments of genuine sentiment and pathos (I\’m thinking of Flick\’s rejection in A Bug\’s Life, or Woody\’s existential crisis in Toy Story 2), but these instances lay nestled in reassuring genre fare.  The Toy Stories are buddy comedies with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.  A Bug\’s Life is The Magnificent Seven writ small.  Monsters, Inc. takes the demon under the bed and makes him/her as cuddly as a plush Barney doll.  Everything is comforting, and nothing that bad happens to anyone we care about.

Finding Nemo doesn\’t play so nice.  In its first five minutes, we get a major trauma: our clownfish hero Marlin (the great Albert Brooks) survives a horrible barracuda attack only to find that the beast has eaten his wife and all-but-one of their unborn eggs.

Ladies and gentlemen, initiate Family Fun Time.  Walt Disney took more time before blowing Bambi\’s mother away; Nemo director Andrew Stanton gets right to the heart of the horror.

What\’s more, Stanton and his co-writers Bob Peterson and David Reynolds make the aftermath of this tragedy the impetus for the rest of the movie.  We see Marlin trying to raise Nemo, the one child who didn\’t die, and he\’s face-planting for all the right reasons: he can\’t see that the more he clings to Nemo, the more Nemo wants to flee, but if you saw 99% of your family massacred before your very eyes, you\’d probably be more than a little overprotective, too.  Then, when scuba divers capture Nemo, Marlin\’s search takes on an all-too desperate quality – in saving his son, maybe Marlin can atone for losing the rest of his family.

In Finding Nemo\’s darkness, we can see inklings of the lonely, post-apocalyptic setting for Wall-E, or Up\’s heartbreaking death montage, or the end of Toy Story 3, which managed to simultaneously recall Unforgiven and Schindler\’s List.  Pixar would become skilled at mining all facets of human emotion for drama, and that prowess began here.

But Finding Nemo is also very much a transition film.  As sobering as the dark stuff is – and parts of Finding Nemo are still unbearably wrenching – Pixar hadn\’t quite crossed into full maturity, and it leavens the sadness with lots of goofy humor.  We get three sharks that have renounced eating other fish, and a long sequence in an aquarium that plays like The Great Escape, and Ellen DeGeneres\’ dim Regal blue tang Dory, and a chilled-out sea turtle (Stanton himself, whose Zen-poet approach to the character has not aged well) prone to surfing the East Australian Current.  It\’s all funny enough, but it detracts from the real drama at hand, and I can\’t help but wish Stanton and Co. had the conviction to embrace all of life\’s messy angles this time around.

That said, these compromises netted Pixar a billion dollars and made something as defiantly uncompromising as Up possible.  I might value Finding Nemo on its own less now than I did in 2003, but I\’ll always be grateful for the freedom it afforded its creators.  Changing the system from the inside is never a bad thing, provided the changes stick…

Disney\’s three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is a thing of beauty; the level of depth and clarity of the HD image is better on Blu-ray than it was in theaters.  Complimenting the picture is a wonderful, immersive 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track.

Supplementary features are also a boon, sprawling over two discs.  We get a picture-in-picture commentary with Stanton, co-director Lee Unkrich, and co-writer Bob Peterson; three behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Finding Nemo: A Filmmakers’ Roundtable,” “A Lesson in Flashbacks,” and “ Making Nemo”); a quick studio tour of Pixar; two ocean-related featurettes (“Reinventing the Submarine Voyage” and “Exploring the Reef”); commentary from production designer Ralph Eggleston, character art director Ricky Nierva, and shading art director Robin Cooper on ten minutes of production artwork; the “Old School” mini-featurettes (“El Capitan Pitch Selects,” “School Progression,” “MA Reference,” “Whale Mouth,” “International Mine,” “Pelican Animation,” “Glenn McQueen Tribute,” and “Aquascum 2003”); ten minutes of concept art and storyboard deleted scenes; Pixar\’s “Knick Knack” short; two minutes of outtakes; the interactive “Mr. Ray’s Encyclopedia” feature; seven ocean-floor screensavers; and a series of trailers and promotional videos.

It\’s a lot, and Finding Nemo deserves it.  Watershed moments deserve red carpet treatment, even if, in Finding Nemo\’s case, they only announce the presence of that which is yet to come.

Finding Nemo streets on December 4th.  Click HERE for Amazon\’s listing.