There were ominous rumours before Finding Nemo swam to the surface. Nefarious whispers suggested it was a dead fish, waiting to flop into cinemas, gasping for appreciation but doomed only to stink up Pixar's reputation.
Despite all the murmurings, however, the opposite was true. Here was a whale of a tale that became the biggest animated hit of all time. It's easy to see why. In plumbing the depths of his concept - clownfish Nemo (Alexander Gould) is nabbed by a diver, forcing his neurotic father Marlin (Albert Brooks) on a frantic search. - Andrew Stanton and his Pixar crew have applied their craftsmanship to a film that pushes Toy Story 2 for top spot.
Naturally, we've now come to expect a certain level of quality from the studio, but Nemo really pushes the boundaries. For starters, the animators have excelled themselves with the visuals, creating a dense, sparkling and eye-bulgingly beautiful ocean world, a seascape which shifts subtly (bright coral reefs, foreboding inky depths, murky harbour water) as the characters head out on their epic journey.
The canny characterisation, meanwhile, makes use of the voice casts' particular talents, channelling Brooks' worrier into a sympathetic lead and finding the perfect outlet for Ellen DeGeneres' kooky optimist. It helps that the supporting players are all quality thesps enjoying their chance to let loose: Willem Dafoe as the brooding leader of the fish tank where Nemo is held captive; Geoffrey Rush as Nigel the wayward pelican; plus Barry `Dame Edna' Humphries' popcorn-spraying turn as the hilarious vegetarian shark Bruce.
Pixar has also done its usual job of squeezing in highbrow and lowbrow film references, in-jokes and humour, while never forgetting to tend to the movie's emotional core. No wonder it made our top three in last issue's Film Of The Year poll.