Pixar have been entertaining audiences for years with their delightful films from early shorts (such as The Adventures of Andre and Wally B, Luxo Jnr and Knick-knack – the later of which precedes prints of Finding Nemo) to their hugely successful feature films. These are generally marketed in a two-pronged manner: the characters are pushed as a tool to sell toys and get the kids on board, while the technical innovation angle is used to rope in technophile adults. Thus Toy Story (1995) was touted as the first wholly CGI feature film, A Bug’s Life (1998) noted for its foliage and feather re-creation and Pixar’s previous film Monsters Inc (2001) seemingly could not be reviewed without press-note friendly information regarding the complexity of its fur rendering.
This is all fine and good – after all CGI films revel in their technical details – but how many times do you need to hear about the heroine’s hair in Final Fantasy? Similarly Finding Nemo is being sold on the "realism" of its depiction of water (although how long will it be before the term "caustics" is banded around by the mainstream media?) But ultimately this misses the point. Whatever technical advances each film heralds, Pixar films have never really been about CGI and this is their real strength.
Under John Lasseter’s direction, Pixar’s previous films were more concerned with developing an audience reaction to the digital protagonists. Monsters Inc was the first non-Lasseter Pixar film, but his influence on both it and Finding Nemo are clearly marked. Specifically, the editing and the subtle facial nuances of the anthropomorphised characters enable the audience to empathise with the events on screen. The technology is used to tell the tale, and not vice-versa.
Finding Nemo starts with a tragedy even Disney would be hard pressed to beat – a father loses his wife and 399 of his children-to-be in a savage swordfish attack that he is powerless to prevent. The one solitary survivor of his clan is little Nemo, an orange clown fish with a gammy fin. Marlin, the father, overprotects his offspring to the point of stifling his first day at school, causing Nemo to be reckless in defiance and culminating in his capture by an Australian dentist diver with a penchant for exotic fish. Distraught, Marlin now embarks on a mission beneath the deadly waves to save his boy, whatever the cost.
Finding Nemo is impossible not to like and is filled with many of Pixar’s trademarks – oddballs are thrust together to make the most of their captivity, courage is found in the most timid of characters, and the long journey is filled with incident and peril. Marlin’s quest to find his son is so astronomically futile that he becomes a legend, his ongoing saga relayed to all the aquatic life. He’s a small ocean-bound fish on a journey to an undisclosed location, his only clue a discarded diving mask with the owner’s name written on it… but clown fish don’t read English.
Fortunately he has a travelling companion in the shape of Dory, a fish who suffers from acute short-term memory loss and an insatiable need to burst into repetitive and tuneless singing. Again the term realism gets banded about when talking CGI, and there’s no denying the advances in animated movement, the number of independent characters, and the sophisticated lighting and shadow effects, but as with all Pixar films, the emphasis is on believability and not on some half-baked Holy Grail of photo-realism. Remember, it’s a film about talking fish, pooping gulls who yell "mine" en masse at any potential food and a sympathetic pink starfish.
Always a joy to watch, there are chuckles, tension, a few jumpy bits and nary a Randy Newman song in sight. Admittedly Marlin’s obsessions border on the sociopathic at times, the voices aren’t quite up to the standard of previous outings (with the exception of scar-faced Gill voiced by Willem Dafoe) and there is a tendency for repeating the ‘plot-so-far’ in a manner that assumes the audience has the memory span of a goldfish, but these are minor points. Beautifully shot, designed and made, Pixar have produced another wonderful film that’s suitable for all ages. Oh, and nice caustics too…