Wasn't it Disney which once claimed that life can be "better down where it's wetter" during The Little Mermaid's ocean-floor showtune `Under The Sea'? Well, that's certainly proved to be true. After all, Mermaid was the feature-'toon that shoved the Mouse House back on track, while Pixar's latest, a subaquatic epic which casts fish as its heroes, smashed box-office records Stateside to surpass The Lion King as America's biggest-ever animated feature.
Conceived, co-written and directed by A Bug's Life helmer Andrew Stanton, Nemo doesn't take long to reveal why: it's a sparkling treasure trove of snappy comedy, smart characterisation, lush visuals and breakneck action.
This fish's tale follows Marlin (Albert Brooks), a neurotic clownfish who's afraid to let his vulnerable son, Nemo (Alexander Gould), out of his sight lest he be gobbled up by one of the Great Barrier Reef's multitudinous predators. Understandable really, especially considering a harrowing face-slap of an opening that reveals how Marlin's wife and brood were massacred by a barracuda. During a school trip, however, Nemo is netted by a diver and whisked away from his ocean home. The distraught Marlin immediately goes in pursuit, reluctantly enlisting the help of Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a fish who suffers from short-term memory loss...
It's become somewhat fashionable to praise family entertainment for being `dark'. After all, if it's `dark', then it must be okay for adults to like it. And Finding Nemo has its fair share of `dark' moments (one minute, Bruce, a vegetarian Great White, sobs that he never knew his father; the next, he's going wild at the scent of blood and launching himself at Marlin and Dory), but to describe it as such is missing the point. The reason why Finding Nemo is such a success is because it's layered.
While Marlin and Dory take the episodic adventure route, Nemo is dropped into an aquarium in a dentist's office, where he encounters a collection of barely sane inmates, led by a fish named Gill (Willem Dafoe) who's obsessed with returning to the Big Blue. So Marlin's journey of self-discovery, in which he encounters monsters, turtles, jellyfish and the like, runs parallel to Nemo's coming of age under Gill's (mis)guidance as he takes part in a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest-flavoured asylum-break.
The moral message is satisfying and schmaltz-free and, as you'd expect from Pixar, the comedy is sharper than a swordfish's nose. Then there's the astounding visualisation of the undersea world, so breathtakingly detailed it could empty a scuba diver's airtank in a matter of seconds. But the loudest praise should go to DeGeneres, who makes the forgetful Dory a laugh-a-minute comedy sidekick, her quips timed to perfection. As Bruce the vegetarian shark's mantra goes, "Fish are our friends." And Finding Nemo certainly makes sure we realise that.
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A spectacular comedy-adventure that's never less than totally immersive. Not quite the masterpiece that Toy Story was, but it's the closest Pixar have come since. Go fish.