Friday, November 21, 2003

Finding Nemo
Review by Sombrero Grande

There are two kinds of movies that Pixar makes: “very good” and “frickin’ amazing.” A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc. are both “very good” movies, but Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and now Finding Nemo are so frickin’ awesome that I want to fall down onto my knees and thank the focal subject of every known and unknown religion that I am alive now to see them.

In case you can’t tell, I’ve had a serious hard-on for Pixar ever since I first saw Toy Story on its opening night way back in ’95. No other group of storytellers and artists has so consistently wowed me with every aspect of their creations. But you’re not here to read about a company, you’re here to find out why I LOVE this movie.

First off, the visuals and animation in Finding Nemo are absolutely breathtaking. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is glowingly showcased in a manner that only modern CGI can accomplish. The most vivid and varied colors possible provide the ultimate eye candy. Even when the action moves out into the bleakness of the open ocean, the artists at Pixar still somehow found a way to visually electrify the screen. The scene with the sunken submarine and the underwater mines had me drooling all over myself, especially when they—sorry, that would be giving away too much too soon.

But the REAL treat in store for audiences here has nothing to do with the CGI. To illustrate my point, take into consideration Pixar’s short cartoon Knick Knack that plays before the movie. Completed in 1989, the visuals look absolutely prehistoric--chunky, blocky, almost detail-less characters and environments by today’s standards--and yet the modern audience I watched it with in the theater still laughed and sympathized with the hapless snowman in his plastic snow globe prison. Why? Because Pixar is better than any other studio out there at always telling an entertaining story with a focus on real emotions that can be enjoyed by seemingly anyone, young or old or anywhere in between.

The story in Finding Nemo is just another example of a totally original idea executed seemingly flawlessly. Marlin is a clownfish who loses his wife and all but one of his children in a vicious barracuda attack at the very beginning of the film. (By the way, bravo to Pixar for not wimping out and giving us a standard “happy” start to the movie. Actually, the whole film overall is surprisingly tense. Just about every location throughout the film lands the characters in one life-threatening situation after another. The open ocean is depicted as very hostile in Finding Nemo, with fierce predators found around almost every turn. Heck, even the dentist’s fish tank is a dangerous place. The numerous chase sequences in the film are dotted with humor whenever possible in order to keep youngsters from flipping out, but still, there’s several edge-of-your-seat moments that caused my eyebrows to raise up a few notches upon seeing after the credits that this film actually managed a “G” rating. After the original The Haunting, it’s certainly the most intense G-rated film I’ve ever seen. But I digress.) After losing nearly everything he ever loved, of course it’s understandable that Marlin would be a little overprotective of his only remaining child, Nemo, who was born with an underdeveloped right fin. (By the way, kudos to Pixar for giving us a physically challenged central character whom we never once feel pity for or feel like we’ve been coerced into liking.)

Like any normal child, Nemo doesn’t like his father always telling him what he can’t do and rebels one day, only to end up getting caught by a diver and taken away to an aquarium in a dentist’s office in Sydney. Marlin’s desperate, hopeless pursuit of the departing speedboat is just one of several heart-wrenching scenes in Finding Nemo.

What follows is Marlin learning to brave the frightening waters of the open ocean to find not only Nemo but also his long-lost courage. Is this starting to sound like a typical story arc? Not so, because now’s when the REAL Pixar magic begins! Get ready to meet one of the most wonderful casts of characters you never before thought could exist, and a storyline that weaves its way through so many novel situations that you’ll find yourself pleasantly caught off guard by each step of the characters’ arcs. Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres—whom I never really found funny until this movie—becomes Marlin’s “buddy”, since all Pixar movies have at least some aspect of “buddy comedy” in them. What Dory’s character possesses in the way of an interesting quirk is that she has no short-term memory (think Memento but played for laughs. And laughs there are! My jaw hurt after leaving the theater because I’d been laughing so much throughout the whole thing.)

Another wonderful new character—whom I’m sure you’ve seen prominently on movie posters for the film—is Bruce the great white shark, named after Spielberg’s nickname for the mechanical shark in Jaws. Bruce and two other sharks are trying to reverse sharks’ negative, violent image by changing their own ways. “Fish are friends; not food,” is their mantra they recite at their group meetings and interventions. And just wait until you meet the “tank gang,” the eclectic microcosm of sea life in the dentist’s aquarium, led by Gill, a Clint Eastwood-esque tough guy—err, fish—voiced by Willem Dafoe who’s intent on “breaking them out” of their glass prison.

All the voice talent is perfectly cast too, from Albert Brooks as the timid, neurotic Marlin to Geoffrey Rush as Nigel, a plot-pivotal pelican. As with all previous Pixar productions, John Ratzenberger, Pixar’s half-joking “good-luck charm,” lends his voice to a character—technically a bunch of them—as the collective voice of a school of moonfish that like to do impressions. Ratzenberger isn’t the only returning figure, however. Pixar movies are typically loaded with in-jokes and Finding Nemo is no exception. Look for a surprise appearance by a Toy Story character in the dentist’s office, and watch for Mike from Monsters, Inc. later on. Also, I’ve heard that some characters from Pixar’s upcoming movies The Incredibles and Cars also have brief “preview” cameos, like how Nemo actually first premiered in Monsters, Inc. as a fish mounted on the wall of the trailer Randall winds up in and as a squeaky toy in Boo’s room.

My only criticism of A Bug’s Life was that there were too many “main” characters, each of whom the filmmakers felt they had to squeeze in a character arc for. I was worried that Finding Nemo would suffer the same fate but was pleasantly surprised to see that Pixar had learned from its previous “mistake.” Each character in Finding Nemo is just as developed as they need to be for the story; no more, no less. The result is that no matter how much or little they were in the story, I ended up loving ALL the characters, even Bruce and Darla (the dentist’s daughter) who are the two most terrifying-yet-at-the-same-time-hilarious characters I’ve ever known in cinema.

Speaking of Darla, I have to say that I really like the direction Pixar is taking with its human characters. In the first Toy Story, the humans looked a bit odd (which is actually rather cool when you realize that the toys were depicted being more life-like than the humans, causing the audience to identify more with the toys than the people…but that’s a point for a whole other review altogether). Now that CGI has evolved to the point where photo-realistic humans are possible, I really love the fact that Pixar is stepping back and “cartooning” the humans. Take a look at the teaser trailer for Pixar’s next opus, The Incredibles, which is included on the second disk of the Finding Nemo DVD set, and you’ll see just how stylized-yet-oddly-realistic human CGI characters can be more interesting than any blandly photo-realistic Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within husks.

I don’t want to spoil anything else in the movie for you, so go see if for yourself NOW! Maybe you’ll see me at the theater since I definitely plan on seeing Finding Nemo more than a few more times!


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