Pixar certainly knows a lot about animation, and that’s what people think of first when you mention the company, but what everyone ought to think of first is that they know a lot about movies. As amazing as their computer-created worlds are, their moviemaking skills far outshine them. Finding Nemo is an incredibly impressive view of things that are among the most difficult to animate, not the least of which being the water itself, but it is also one of the best stories about fathers, sons, and humans in general that you’ll run across.
The movie starts with Marlin (Albert Brooks), a clownfish, showing his wife the new home he’s found for them. We only get a brief glimpse of hundreds of their eggs, and the playful, colorful world of the reef on which they live, when a barracuda appears. Cut to Marlin finding the one remaining egg. A few months later that egg has grown into Nemo, who has a handicap by way of a small, semi-useless fin, and it’s time for his first day of school. It’s only a few minutes into the movie, but we’ve already established Marlin’s overprotectiveness, and the apprehensive attitude he has for the world in general. In fairness to Marlin, when a barracuda, or who knows what else, could appear at any moment and eat your entire family, a certain amount of this is just good sense.
Marlin’s overriding determination to keep Nemo safe soon alienates him from his son, and Nemo does something dangerous in retaliation. Metaphor has rarely managed such a combination of bold obviousness and precise subtlety as we see in the sheer drop to the ‘big, bad world’, and the apprehension and fear of a parent whose child has ‘gone off on his own’. Before you know it, Nemo has been taken by scuba divers, and Marlin is left to search the ocean for the last thing in his life. Marlin soon runs into Dory, a fish with no short-term memory, and the two of them embark on a mammoth adventure in their quest to cross hundreds of miles of ocean. Nemo is soon seen in a fishtank in a dentist’s office where he meets new friends, and hopes to somehow escape before we reach the movie’s own version of Doom’s Day.
A great deal of credit must be given not only to Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres, as Marlin and Dory respectively, but also to whoever chose them. Brooks is perfect, playing not only his usual character, but more specifically his character from the overlooked and wonderful Defending Your Life. DeGeneres is hilarious thoughout. It’s hard to give praise specifically to timing in an animated feature (for me at least, because I’m not entirely sure how that works), but she is spot on in so many scenes that the lion’s share of credit surely must go to her. Let’s not forget, however, that her character is all the more wonderful because it’s swimming next to Brooks.
At its easiest level, Finding Nemo works extremely well as a ‘standard’ animated adventure. As we’d expect from Pixar, the movie is unbelievably beautiful. Many of the underwater scenes are too gorgeous, and too perfectly realistic even to explain them at all. We have a generous helping of funny moments, several that will have you laughing out loud, and Albert Brooks provides a semi-straight influence that builds many moments to a greater payoff. We also have several cute characters to pull us, and the story, along. In short, anything and everything you might have enjoyed in any animated film of the last ten years is here, and it’s better.
But, Finding Nemo is much more, and it is more by virtue of what it is not, and what it leaves out. It isn’t preachy, it doesn’t explain, and no one even exactly ‘gets better’. Nemo’s handicap is not overly pointed to, though it must come up of course, and it doesn’t even really represent a handicap. His deformed fin is not really ‘part’ of Nemo, but rather it belongs to his father, representing whatever it might be that a parent uses to focus their worry. At the end of the adventure, neither Marlin nor Nemo are ‘fixed’, but they have each managed to understand each other slightly better. Marlin spends his time with a surrogate child, Dory, who he can’t really control, but has to take care of. Nemo spends his time with a surrogate family, and we (and he) get brief, unstated glimpses of life as it exists too far on the other end of the spectrum from Marlin’s paranoia. Nemo is also able to gain a bit of appreciation for the ‘person’ his father is, now that he has been removed from the father his father is. Something, generally, we all come to eventually.
During Marlin’s exploits on his way to Nemo, he is exposed to a few more facets that make up life, and he slowly comes to the realization that to spend all of one’s time protecting something is to lose out on the enjoyment of it, whether it be his son, his own life, or anything else. In order to ensure that no harm can come to Nemo, he has sacrificed really being a father. In one scene in the film Marlin tells Dory that he has failed Nemo because he promised he wouldn’t let anything happen to him. You can’t not let anything happen to him, Dory remarks in her confused way, then nothing would happen to him. In a lesser movie, Marlin would eventually have an epiphany, add the most definitive version of this idea to his overall personality, and become a new man…, as it were. Finding Nemo is better than that, because while Marlin does definitely change, he only just barely changes, just the way people actually change. At the end he’s on board with the idea, but he’s not very good at it, and despite the fact that deep down inside he realizes he was wrong, he’s not so sure he was wrong exactly. Maybe he was something more along the lines of not entirely right.
And, Finding Nemo, in a move unheard of for an animated film, never tells you any of this. It never tells you what’s wrong at the beginning, and never tells you what’s right at the end. It never pays any attention to anything other than showing you what happens. It’s a movie, like the life it intends to mirror, that has only struggle and no villain. In the end, by leaving out any highlights or examination, we can get the idea that maybe Marlin’s right. He wasn’t wrong, he just was. The movie leaves off trying to ‘make its point’, and by doing so gains the possibility of making another point. Maybe being better at some point does not actually require having been worse before.
Each disc has its own one-minute introduction, and while these are not particularly interesting, they are a nice touch. Each disc also has what Pixar calls its Virtual Aquarium feature. The menu choices can be removed from any given menu, thus giving you the background shot alone. The first disc has seven options, all of which are ocean in nature. The second disc has four options, these representing various angles/moods of the dentist’s fishtank. This is of questionable entertainment value at best, but at least those on the second disc have fish swimming around, whereas the first disc is only scenery.
Making Nemo is a 25-minute documentary that follows the production, and it is an above-average effort. We get a lot of background on the work of the story department, and the progression of the ideas. This includes a lot of storyboards and early test reels. We also get a very good look at the animation process, and see the use of freehand drawings, sculptures, and real fish as part of the overall effort. Here we get, among other things, some very nice side-by-side comparison shots of video of real fish and the resulting comparative animation. Several minutes of the documentary take us into the hivemind of the cast, especially detailing how they managed to blow off steam. At some point the crew was moved to a larger building, and the cast didn’t manage to run into each other as often, resulting in some measure of lowered morale. A contest somehow developed whereby the crew would come to work looking more and more odd. This began with the female crew wearing outlandish make-up, while men all grew mustaches, and eventually progressed to the wearing of strange outfits. This served to prompt everyone to go out of their way to see what people were doing. This is perhaps needless information for a documentary, but it serves (especially in the context of everything else we see) to illustrate what a vastly different project this is. As opposed to any other movie we see in theaters, these people spent more than three years working on this together. Put all this together with a lot of information, and this becomes a true bonus of a feature.
There are four features that come under the DVD’s heading Design Galleries. There is first an art review which can be played with music from the movie’s score, or with a commentary by the designers. This is mainly pre-production art in the form of pastel drawings, and we get images that run the length of the film. Next, there is a character gallery where 22 characters from the film can be chosen individually, or they can all be played together at a length of six minutes. In this we see a montage of character images from various stages of the design, and a sculpture of the character. Next is an environment gallery separated into: Reef, Ocean, and Harbor. This is a still gallery of the various background work. Finally, we have the Color Script gallery which is over 300 images by Production Designer Ralph Eggleston which were used as the inspiration for lighting, mood, etc.
Exploring the Reef is a seven-minute mockumentary on the coral reef hosted by Jean-Michel Costeau. It seems a completely straight-forward documentary, and then Dory swims by. Marlin and Nemo soon enter as well and the trio serve to frustrate Costeau’s attempts to talk about the reef and make his film. Quite an entertaining piece.
Knick Knack is an animated short that Pixar made in 1989. This is a cute and comical four-minute film about a snowman in a snowglobe who longs for the warmer climes among the other knick-knacks on a shelf. There is an optional commentary for this as well.
Mr. Ray’s Encyclopedia takes a look at the various sealife of Finding Nemo in pseudo-intellectual fashion. 13 varieties of creature are given a brief overview with the natural dash of humor thrown in. This has a bit more information than you might think, but at a total time of just over seven minutes, not all that much more. Still, it’s very well done.
Fisharades is a game wherein one or two players guess what the silverfish are going to make. There’s actually a timer, and some of them aren’t as easy as you think. Well, if you’re trying to guess quickly anyway. A semi-clever feature that takes advantage of the film’s resources, and has somewhere between twenty and thirty possibilities.
Storytime is a DVD storybook style feature, and gives us a semi-interactive story of Nemo’s day at school. This can be played in Read-Along or Read-to-Yourself mode. Apart from the fact that it isn’t long enough to warrant its own purchase, this could be sold separately. It’s a wonderful feature with (all things considered) a long story and several points of interaction. The storybook has a great feel to it, with very simple design and high contrast.
The Behind the Scenes selection on the DVD will lead you to three options. The character interview is a 2 ½-minute interview with Marlin, Nemo, and Dory in the style of a legitimate press interview with the stars of any other film. Though lacking in length, this is sure to get a chuckle or two, and there is a special appearance by Bruce the shark. The Studio Tour is a bit over five minutes, and represents Pixar’s main flaw in the DVD, as they become a little too convinced of their cleverness here. Rather than a ‘normal’ trip around the studio, they have to make a story out of it, and it’s a silly story. The Publicity selection here will get us to a teaser trailer for the film, three other trailers, and three more character-specific trailers. We also get a still gallery of posters, lobby cards, and other publicity items.
The Visual Commentary (which is available on the widescreen disc) for Finding Nemo is one of only a handful of commentary tracks that have really kept me… hooked… for their entire runtime. The commentary is given to us by writer/director Andrew Stanton, co-director Lee Unkrich, and co-writer Bob Peterson. This is a Visual commentary track, because throughout the run of the track we will get to moments where we cut away from the movie in order to show some special video footage, and then cut back to where we left the movie.
This is an altogether interesting and entertaining commentary that covers a wide range of details about the film. From many of the animation aspects, with cut-aways to in-depth coverage of how certain things managed to get to the screen, to coverage of the story ideas. Not just your typical explanation of the story arc, but serious insight into the choices made and the direction these creators of the film wanted to go with the movie. It’s refreshing to listen to people who really understand how to make a movie, animated or otherwise, talk about the creative process.
This is a commentary with everything an audience could hope for, even a bit of clowning around, and it is all balanced in fine form. The cut-aways actually bring something to the table, rather than being just another gimmick to throw in because we can, and viewing the film in this mode drives home the degree to which these people know precisely what they’re doing.
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